By: Janet McAdams
Reviewed by: Lewis Colon Jr.
Salt Publishing, 2007
Several poems in Janet McAdams’ Feral “retell or refer to stories about feral children” as the author clarifies in the “Notes to Poems” addendum. Upon finishing the book, McAdams’ second, the reader may recall as the most interesting poems those that are referred to rather than retold. The most dazzling movements in Feral bite off more than any one narrative, finding McAdams focused simultaneously on several reoccurring threads.
“Offices of Pity,” a three-page poem of shifting perspective that balances documented events with imagery from Truffaut’s oft forgotten film, L’Enfant Sauvage, exemplifies the book’s breadth. This poem synthesizes Feral’s two chief strengths: ultra-precise visualizations and McAdams’ talent for enlivening the source material from which she wrings her emotive detail: “In the wild kingdom / I was cradled by the warm body of my mother. / Our treasures were teeth and claws / and the wisdom to turn from your cities.” The finest poem in Feral, however, is “Moths,” which is comprised of short, discrepant-feeling sections. Here, McAdams deals in the anguish and shame of mute victimhood, the dehumanization following the brute urges of a more powerful predator: “In the difficult landscape of telling, / they ask: Did you pay? / the men imagine the struggle, / they turn from the damage.” Though written with the lucidity of trauma remembered, the precise dramatic situation is slippery, with McAdams inter-splicing stanzas of obscure book paraphrasing that, beyond their symbolism, settle into drops of surrealism, pulling the poem’s tension more taut while simultaneously undermining it. The poet separates these sections of “Moths” like peas from mashed potatoes on a plate—adjacent masses kept from spilling over into another’s demarcated territory. Readers must learn the language, deducing connections themselves in this poem’s splayed world, just as a forest child might gradually incorporate each category of a city.
If Feral is guilty of anything, it’s guilty of something overdone rather than underdone. Perhaps because the numerous retellings of feral-child stories each happen in the limited space of one poem, the reader often gets an inchoate sense of what separates one feral-child story from the next. This may not be bad at all. Rather, the ecstasy of McAdams’ lines may have been lost had she leaned too much on narrating lore. She sweats only a few, well-chosen details. McAdams doesn’t bind her voice with the thickness of unnecessary facts, figures, and dates. This choice achieves an impressionistic sense of narrative that is purposeful and challenging, the secret to Feral’s salience.
Lewis Colon Jr. lives in Tuscaloosa.