Review: Erica Mena’s Featherbone
by Elysia Smith and August Smith
The Fall of Icarus is a deeply embedded cultural myth, extending beyond eras and empires, retold in paintings, books, poems, and songs. Erica Mena’s Featherbone, published in Spring 2015 by University of Southern California’s Gold Line Press (under their Ricochet chapbook imprint), seeks to carve out its own interpretation of the myth, recasting Icarus as a woman and twisting the usually-straightforward narrative into something abstract, dense, and deeply visceral.
To do justice to this experimental work, we (Elysia Smith and August Smith, no relation) decided to approach this review as a collaborative experiment, and what follows is our back-and-forth email exchange and textual analysis of Featherbone.
Elysia Smith: Featherbone? Flight? That’s what I’m seeing, obviously. But, I’m curious what you think about sound in this book. Something undulates for me. Also, the almost sensual way words are smacked up next to each other to create new words, what’s that about? My favorite: “skinchurn”. I think of breathing.
What’s up with the “you” and “I”? I’m wondering who these characters are, romantic maybe? There is a theme of loss running through this: loss of breath, loss of flight, splintering. How does it relate to the speaker, to the you?
August Smith: Definitely agreed that the first element that stood out for me was sound, especially the smacked-together words (or, as the press release calls them, “compound neologisms”). I found it interesting that the neologisms were often related to the body in some way, be it an explicit connotation like with “skinchurn”, or as a word that is linked to the concept of the body, like “searshut your throat & open soundless”. Alongside this association, I picked up on a consistent motif of change and growth and maybe something like ‘mutation’, of bones splintering and wings shedding and skin breaking. Perhaps there is a poetic resonance between the way these neologisms feel awkwardly and artificially stitched together, and the way the concept of the body is presented as a violently shifting thing. A good example is this passage from page 11 of the book: “Searshut your throat & open soundless:/ again–it pierces your back–/ spins –you lurch and plummet–/ light is: to blame you: unother.”
Speaking of neologisms, did you have any thoughts on what the recurring word “featherbone” refers to? It’s used so frequently in the text, and at once seems to be connected to the body, the outer world of sea and sky, the idea of flight, and the idea of change.
I liked the way the book avoided a simple narrative; with so much focus on mythical language and flight, one might expect that any sort of “falling” from flight would happen towards the climax or near the end. But instead the book opens with a fall, and oscillates between falling and flying throughout. It’s a loopy, blurry narrative, if one even exists. According to the press release– and I discovered this before my second read-through– the book is a retelling of the Icarus myth from a female perspective. Did you have any thoughts regarding the narrative?
The “you” and “I” confused me as well. The “I” was definitely used sparingly, but I picked up on a hint of romance between the two as well. Did you find any illuminating passages regarding this relationship?
Elysia: The word neologisms makes me want to punch someone in the mouth. But, perhaps that’s the four cups of coffee I’ve just had talking. In regard to your musings on the text and the body, I’d definitely agree that the body here is presented as unstable, and the slapdash words— ahem, neologisms— dutifully represent the chaotic human form, or the shift.
I like what you mention about falling and the lack of narrative clarity. I imagined this book to be focused on a trauma as the language appears so visceral, the language of splayed organs and “bloodstatic.” Not to mention, the difficulty of recreating narrative within or out of trauma. Moments just before or just after the indicting incident often rise to the surface as the most clear. For example, from page 25: “the last time this happened you fell/ you sank/ you weren’t enough.”
I had recognized something about Icarus but was wondering how the “She”, “You”, and “I” related to that. I had not thought that the “She” may be Icarus. This does make sense, however, with the context of trauma.
Perhaps the “You”, “I”, and “She” are one in the same. But I don’t think this book wants us to shine a light on it or in it.
P.S. I guessed that maybe “featherbone” is the small hollow thing that runs up the center of feathers but neither of us knows much about birds or feathers for that matter.
August: Although it didn’t occur to me before, I think you’re on the right track with the idea of trauma. There is something very traumatic in the periphery of this book. This theme clicks especially well for me with regards to the sections about “silence”, which is a word that appears frequently in the book. The part I remember most vividly is the section about silence and how silence is a necessary element in the creation of sound and communication. And you’re right, this also feeds into the unstable narrative and the constant references to falling and rising, again and again, like a skipping record. Whoah! I want to reread the book now with this in mind.
And I also concur with your observation that the book doesn’t want to call attention to the “characters” relationships/presences. This is compounded by the moments in the book when other voices encroach, too; borrowed language from technical texts about birds, Grey’s Anatomy, the Oxford English Dictionary, etc., were particularly jarring and destabilizing. Like the smashed-together words, these borrowed language moments disrupted the flow of the book in a way that drew attention away from the “main” voice.
Elysia: All in all, I can appreciate what the book is for what it is, but I have to say, it’s not my cup of tea entirely. The opacity reminded me of Jorie Graham but when I read Graham’s work, I don’t feel quite as far away from the speaker. In Mena’s Featherbone, the distance seems intentional but I do wish I could tether it to something more tangible.
My favorite moment in the book has to be page 40’s depiction of what I imagine to be the fall, the last line being “you merge”. I see the “you” as simultaneously representing Icarus and the water.
August: Personally, I enjoyed Featherbone, even though it’s not the type of poetry I usually gravitate to. It took several read-throughs before the text opened up for me, and that’s a sensation/satisfaction that I always enjoy. The text definitely has a unique set of tools that it relies on: the compound neologisms, the snippets of borrowed language, the stilted flow. It makes me interested in reading more from Mena.
Elysia Smith is a poet residing in Cambridge MA. Her work can be found in Split lip, Tulip, 90’s Meg Ryan, and Pank. When she’s not poeming, she’s at work on a novel or preparing to join the circus.
August Smith is a poemboy in Somerville. He runs Cool Skull Press and attends UMass Boston. You can find his work if you google “August Smith poetry”. He usually has a great day.