Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Review: Catechism For A Girl On Fire, by Shay Simmons

* Five Stars *

Where to even begin? The cover, carefully chosen by the author, seems to be a logical place, with its sense of wildness, its fear and its picture of the Self on the run amid forces beyond its control. This is a book of poems, but it is also a mirror of our inner world, crossed by storms and fertile with all the fleeting gifts of life savored as they tornado past.

The book is divided into sections described by tags from the author's blog, Shay's Word Garden, where these poems have all previously appeared under her internet sobriquet of Fireblossom. Like the title, they are highly individual and full of Simmons' own quirky view of herself and life on this planet. The first is called Travel Stories (For Girls, but all are welcome), a seemingly conventional phrase, yet the places we travel here are far from anything found on a map.

Here is a bit of New Banana Town to show you what I mean:

 "In Old Mango City,
I wore the thrift shop jacket you liked
and the big shades

I wore them up, in my hair
as if I were trying out for Queen of the Produce Stalls.
You disassembled, became incorporeal,

and slept with my better nature
behind my back..."*

This book is a journey of the heart and mind as well as that tag-along, the body, and Simmons never fails to take us by surprise with who we are, with who the ones we love are, and what may happen to the innocent at any moment. In the next section, Catholic Girls (on the Loose) we see that sense of perpetual displacement handled with grace and control, illustrated in poems like Crow Heart, from which I will only quote a very few passages (but please read it all at the link): 

"I told you from the start,

from the morning you came through my open door
tripping on a hinge flopped dead on the flagstones,
that crows had nested in my heart.

My fairy tale cottage had survived the bombardment;
just a little gingerbread dust on the plates and tables..."

The poem  takes us to a reality where everything legitimate seems instead dangerously illegal, where nothing can be trusted, but everything, possibly, manipulated. The speaker is both sympathetic and alien in her authoritative judgements, and if you listen you can hear the kind of pronouncements that are meant to define the undefinable, and do so competently and with completely ownership.

"My crows live for trickery because they are crows.
I am an honest woman, but they have nested in my heart...

We might have loved, you and I, in my gingerbread bed,
if we had met when people still cared about things.
As it is, I sink the shiv in even as I kiss you, but the birds whisper
inside my chest, insisting that I leave you a trinket, my old heart,

bright and worthless as a penny."*

In the selections in (Whatever Happened to) Baby Jane, we see an unexpected tenderness, unexpected because it is mixed with such stark surrealism, a feeling of larger, external chaos ordered by the inner self into an often wounding force, from which one hides in love for another; however illusory it may be, it remains the sweetest option, a sort of emotional minimalism amidst the carnage without. This is amply illustrated in the simplicity of  The Winter Guest, with lines like:

"I loved the delicate balance
 of my quilt on your back--
 candle light in my bedroom--
 and all of that...."*

but there is also an incongruous native horror in many of these (I won't quote but go read  The Tenth Month, for example)  that ties in well with the twisted quality of helplessness and of innocence before evil which the tag invokes. 

In the section entitled Funny Girl, we see the author's trademark sense of the absurd, her ability to make us laugh even while we're bleeding from the gut. Simmons is a many-faceted writer, and this is one side of her writing that never fails to move and amaze me, because dragging humor from loss or despair and making it genuine is one of the hardest notes in a writer's repertoire. See My Consultant for a great example of this.

The poet finishes with a single intense and perfectly crafted piece, well-deserving of its own chapter, that puts the last flourish on an experience that will linger in the memory long after the last word is read. Please go to her blog now and read No More of Jerry  because Simmons is at the absolute top of her form here, which no words of mine or anyone else's can adequately describe. 

I highly recommend this collection of recent poems as well as her earlier books, The Cherub of Pierzanie Prison, and My Mad Love, to anyone who loves the written word and the magic it can perform, because in my opinion, there is no one living today who is a more accomplished magician, or writes of the human dilemma more truly than Shay Simmons.

Her books are available on Amazon:

Catechism For A Girl on Fire
The Cherub Of Pierzanie Prison
My Mad Love

*quoted with permission of the author, all rights reserved,
© Shay Simmons


  1. I am agog, and humbled, by this fantastic review of my book. All I can say is thank you, thank you, thank you. It is obvious the love and time you put into this. I am truly honored, Joy.

  2. If I hadn't already snatched the book, I would be running to buy it. Because all you say is true, every word. The music is dark and bright and deep and terrifying and tender... and so magically real, from the first poem to the last.

  3. Joy, a fantastically apt review of an amazing writer, whose poetry has astonished and delighted me for years. Her very first poem left me enlightened at just how far a poem can go beyond the bounds of conventional poetry. No limits. That is the main thing Shay has shown me. She has created her own genre and she continues to amaze and delight me with every poem she writes.


"We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, out of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry." ~William Butler Yeats

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