by Weston Cutter
I’ll admit that I’ve been holding back on doing this review. Holding back both out of just general laziness, but also out of something like fear. Catie Rosemurgy’s The Stranger Manual is one of those books which, like stars, is best seen indirectly, best considered (in the classic Replacement phrase) left of the dial. Why? Well, look first at the title of the whole thing: the book’s title’s second word can either be adjective or noun, and how you split the wood there’s significant. Is this a Stranger Manual, like, the manual that comes between the Strange and the Strangest manual? Or is this Stranger Manual for strangers, and, if so, what’s the deal on that?
I don’t have answers, of course, and I wonder if Rosemurgy (who I interviewed a bit ago)(also: an interview in which she talks about the book’s title!) would even be willing to say if she read/meant the title one way or another. Becuase, see, this is the thing, dear reader: Catie Rosemurgy’s book The Stranger Manual functions somehow almost Rorschachian, something nearly symmetric. On page 11, there’s “Miss Peach Imagines She Is an Aging British Rock Star and Explains What Honesty Is”; on 61, there’s “Miss Peach Imagines She Is an Aging British Rock Star and Considers Bipedalism While Responding to a Beautiful Woman Who Has Just Said ‘I Love You'”; these represent only half of the Miss Peach/Aging British Rock Star poems in the book.
So your first hint: The Stranger Manual is graced with Miss Peach, this fictional, freewheeling, incredibly strange + appealing woman, plus lots of what happens with/to Miss Peach happens within Gold River (a town). It’s hard to talk about this stuff without sounding silly or weird, hard to talk about overtly unreal stuff in poems, because it’s the opposite of what we come to poetry for, right? We come for honesty and seriousness and intense stuff—we want the callused skin of day-to-day experience peeled back carefully, surgically snipped beautifully, and we want the thrumming muscle beneath revealed, and to do that we need some decent authorial presence, someone to be Legit and Real, right? Maybe this is just me, but it feels like much of the poetry we all read features voice stuff such as this (I’ve got a stack of 7 books of poetry here, all of which I’m to be reviewing, and I can think of none which feature a speaker who is clearly false/made up).
And so it’s both incredibly fresh (all meanings of the word) and a bit strange to get this Miss Peach woman: she’s odd and hilarious, and touchingly direct in ways, again, we’re mostly (or at least for sure I) not accustomed to finding in poems. Here’s the first three sentences of “Miss Peach Explains Promiscuity to a Toddler”:
Say this yellow square block is bored. Say she’s bored because she’s always been
a yellow square block and has always been knocked down with other yellow square blocks.
So one days she goes to the couch where she meets some blue rectangles. The idea
is to make something she hasn’t seen fall down before.
Just for that phrase—make something she hasn’t seen fall down before—would make the book worth buying, but it does even get better thereafter.
(I’m having a hard time with this. This book moved me and wowed my and for the last several months I’ve probably had it near me more than any book in a long-ish time; it’s so good it now knocks me back, makes me nervous. Maybe this: For those of us who write, there’s that grip of fear that clutches when you realize, looking through all the stuff you write, that you are, in lots of ways, all the stuff you write. Too many serious, wordy things about attachment and fear? Bingo: that’s the mirror, kid. Too jokey, an inability to hold anything? Likewise. The truth is, whether we want to admit it or not, the line between author and book is never very distinct [for tons of reasons; I’m not saying The Stranger Manual is autobiography on Ms. Rosemurgy’s part; I will, however, say that this book could only be exactly what it is because of Rosemurgy’s obvious and intense great humor, her willingness to have this tough tenderness, this sort of laughing intimacy]. What I’m trying to say is: this book is both ten times funnier and a dozen times sweeter than any book I can think of in the last five/ten years. I’m not kidding. This book is to good contemporary poetry what Aimee Bender’s best stories are to fiction—strange, illuminating because of difference, sexy as hell).
God! This book! You page through at random and get lines that just knock you sideways. Ugh. I can’t do it. The Stranger Manual is bigger and funnier and better than any review’ll try to shape it into, starting with this one. Please, please: buy this.