The Itinerant Girl’s Guide to Self-Hypnosis by Joanna Penn Cooper
Brooklyn Arts Press, 2014; 59 pp
Reviewed by Laurie Saurborn Young
Built of myth and symbol, lineage and catalogue, the world of Joanna Penn Cooper’s work of lyrical fiction, The Itinerant Girl’s Guide to Self-Hypnosis, is an imagistic file of a unique life that can be mistaken for no other. Traveling through the American South, rubbing shoulders with Baptists and Lutherans, the speaker’s gaze moves among dogwoods in bloom, grade school dance recitals, and the Great Smoky Mountains. Eventually, this childhood—a place where loved ones tell each other to “go look at the moon”—is replaced in adulthood by an urban environment, where the moon is “only light from the window opposite.”
As Djuna Barnes wrote in Nightwood, “An image is a stop the mind makes between uncertainties.” Visually rich, the speaker’s ever-observant eye creates and links images as she reconstructs her past while simultaneously striving to understand her present. “How might it be, she used to wonder, to be an other girl?” The question floats past, quiet and nearly unnoticed. Instead, the more intriguing aspect of the book is the speaker’s journey to define how it is to be the person she has become, someone with deep familial connections who fears she has not paid enough attention to her heritage (“Having learned the stories. Having failed to learn them enough.”).
Strikingly, any tendency toward self-diagnosis is minimized. The “uncertainties,” then, may be what defies recording and recollection, what cannot be caught in details and figurative language. Motivations and reflections often remain obscured not only from the reader, but from the speaker as well. Matter-of-fact in describing her actions, at times she appears confused, or at least mystified, by the reasons for her behavior, as when she buys a short blue dress and seduces an old boyfriend. Returning home, she consults a Tarot deck, whose cards suggest the self-defeating aspect of her choices. Yet it is this marriage of transparency and opacity, this willingness to sit with the unknowable and confusing self, which saturates the book with fierce vulnerability.
In her essay, “Green Screen: The Lack of Female Road Narratives and Why It Matters,” Vanessa Veselka writes, “True quest is about agency, and the capacity to be driven past one’s limits in pursuit of something greater. It’s about desire that extends beyond what we may know about who we are.” Cooper’s writing is just this sort of exploration. Reminiscent of a contemporary Scout Finch, the speaker is self-aware and defiant. “I may have been born chronically homesick,” she says, “But don’t tell me I don’t know happy.” Shifting in and out of the present time and tense, she is moved partly of her own accord and partly by the thrust of time and circumstance. “Itinerant” defines travel as circuitous, looping, and repetitive. And so this piece of lyrical fiction is allowed—encouraged, even—to frustrate expectations of linear narrative, as if a villanelle rendered in prose. Reaching back, the speaker casts fresh eyes on her past. Reaching forward, she acknowledges the boundaries of her vision.
Operating in opposition to this movement is a hypnotic state, the archivist’s impulse to dwell in and hover alongside past selves. The nine-year-old in the Bob Dylan t-shirt, who prefers watching dust motes and drinking Strawberry Quik over playing with a neighbor kid, exists in close proximity to the Goethe-loving teenager who shuts herself away “in my room being skinny and having bangs, listening to Bauhaus and lifting 3 lb weights.” The act of self-hypnosis sets strange conditions, as it requires the conscious mind to relinquish the rational self, the self that must first ask to be freed. It is as though the writing process and the book itself are hypnotic procedures, offering as they do the opportunity to delve into layers of consciousness and history.
When at the book’s end the speaker is restored to a landscape populated not with skyscrapers but with trees, her ability to name—to orient—the flora returns slowly, as if, like the voice of her grandmother, this particular vocabulary travels “across space and across time.” Existing neither as object or stationary image, the speaker is deeply rooted to a world that tends toward continual destabilization of self and self-understanding. In these pages, more than once she says, “I was born.” With repetition it becomes a different mantra, a way to insist, “I am here.”