Laura Madeline Wiseman is the author of twelve poetry collections. After reading Wiseman's previous books and enjoying her outrageous play with gender and candid feminist intent, I expected her collection of speculative poetry Stranger Still to display a similarly forthright approach. Upon seeing the endearing cover art by Zeljka Hassler featuring the large-headed green Martians approaching a window with a book in their three-fingered hands, and Wiseman's promotional photography shoots carrying this book in places UFOs may have touched ground, what came to mind was a funny play on the sexes, relating to the early 1990s popular book by John Gray, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. (Full disclosure: Wiseman and I recently collaborated on a book, Intimates & Fools.)
What I found, though, wasn't my expected play with sexuality. Utilizing the recognizable, asexual green Martian form, Wiseman writes not of gender, but instead curiously, humorously, and perhaps unintentionally poses a question: what is it like to live without the perspectives of gender roles?
In a few instances in Wiseman's poems, aliens eerily parallel women, examining the media's gawking, distorted representation, in the course of an incredulous nurturing narrative in which a human cares for Martians, ending with a probing indictment (pun intended).
The first poems in Stranger Still observe the celestial beings through the seemingly bleary modes of radio, television, tabloids, and a memory of space camp. They hint at the exciting notion of the aliens’ actual presence.
In "The Tabloids" Wiseman’s distorted description echoes that of women represented in popular culture, and our fascination with that representation:
Their skeletal selves fill flashy covers
And exclusives in the check-out aisle,
An offer to gawk, to guffaw, to claim
You knew one once. All of us alien
In our fetish with Martians, the red planet,
Beams of light propelling our eyes up. (p. 7)
"After Watching a Marathon on Cable" reminds us of the ever-present sources constantly bombarding us with possible misinformation:
Are Area 51 and Roswell big lies? I don't know.
Is Devils Tower? Do boys on bicycles fly
With one in a crate? I don't know
If Martians abduct us to cut into our inner worlds. (p. 6)
"Reality TV: The Trouble with Martians Is They Don't Fit In" amusingly presents aliens, the odd ones out: "At parties, they're no spaced-out / wallflowers. They're the cluster of green bodies gyrating ahead of or behind the beat" (p. 8).
"Warning" suggests that the presence of aliens would be liberating: "The Martians have landed. You're free" (p. 4). Readers wonder: free from what—from the weather, from the mess of human pandemonium and ridiculous modern multimedia frenzy?
Wiseman then takes us through a visit from Martians who trick-or-treat at her house, in "First Contact." Motherly, she takes in the "typical Martians: green skin, thing limbs, and maybe three-feet-tall" (p. 19). The lens through which these asexual beings are viewed is interestingly neutral. "No look of guilt. No belly bulges to belie the act undone" after a feast on a bed comforter and dust ruffle in "Martian Food" (p. 11).
The aliens play dress-up with "sandals, scuba flippers, trainers and heels" like giddy girls in "The Martians Order" (p. 12) and become entranced in a "museum for the amphibians" in "The Vanishing" as the main character disenchants: "Sometimes, they died" (p. 13).
"What Do Martians Want" and "Enemy Mine" describe the Martians as inhibited and peaceful, inviting a turkey in to feast on it rather than shooting it; and quivering "at death scenes, at crash landings, and at the pistol, knife and laser gun" in alien movies (p. 16). In "Why Not to Buy Martians Sundaes Topped with Cherries" it is out of the question to seduce them simply: "No grin spreads to lure and tempt a thought, to coax a slow walk home" (p. 18).
The last poems further suggest the similarity with women, or are they the women? A striking comment on the social construction of group identity, and its impact on self-image, is made as the main character converses in "Misnomer": "You're a lost people . . . an unknown." To which the Martians sagely reply: "All these people have been named by you because you didn’t know what they called themselves . . . the Martian grabs my hand and pulls me up until my palm is flat against the Martian's green chest. / Shhh, the Martian says, We've never been lost” (p. 19).
Identity is further blurred as the Martian "gives me a heart . . . then enters my bedroom" in "Stranger Still" (p. 20) and in an enigmatic ontological nightmare in "Martian Dream": "Under any force, Martians can't disappear entirely. It is true some Martians change person-to-person and over time they weather. If I close my eyes, could I open up to the Martian inside?" (p. 21).
The last poem, "Abduction, Finally," is perhaps the most curious; so as not to give any spoilers, readers are left wondering: did she lose herself in others, or did she find herself? Is she relieved at getting away, or is she just now coming to?
Add too, complementary quotes and excerpts from poets, writers, and famous people in history, and the book is more gratifying than the alien-fronted rags in the supermarket. The title couldn't be more appropriate for this enchantingly heretical series of work, not only for its leap from Wiseman's familiar, sometimes explicit (yet still enjoyable) human subject matter, but for its deviation from the usual account of aliens and how they might reflect and deflect humanity, and womanhood specifically, as historical outsiders. Just as the prominent role of media in Wiseman's saga implies, her story too queries: who’s to say what is real, where we are, who we are, and where we're going? Maybe it's all a dream, and for Wiseman, maybe that's okay, even liberating . . . there has been stranger, still.
Sally Deskins is an artist and arts writer specializing in women and feminist writers and artists. Her recent writing has been published in Stirring, Prick of the Spindle, Gently Read Literature, and Cactus Heart Literary Magazine. She recently illustrated Intimates & Fools (poetry by Laura Madeline Wiseman, Les Femmes Folles Books, 2014). She lives in Morgantown, WV with her husband and two children. She can be found online at femmesfollesnebraska.tumblr.com/ and sallydeskins.tumblr.com/.
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