Use­ful Junk

  • Review
By – July 5, 2022

Use­ful Junk, Eri­ka Meitner’s sixth book, surges with amal­gamiz­ing ener­gy. When a friend tells the speak­er to use a slight­ly more capacious/​we in my poems,” the col­lec­tion does not only expand its Whit­manesque col­lec­tive, it also enlarges to include more ver­sions of the self — There are so many you’s inside of me.” This is a book that demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly yet inti­mate­ly gath­ers all in its path, from Pol­ish ghet­tos to the art of the butt self­ie. As a coun­ter­point to the open­ness of these poems, there are repeat­ed moments when the speak­er — a busy par­ent and pro­fes­sor — craves pri­va­cy, dur­ing which she pulls into park­ing lots of big-box stores and sits in her car. The sense of relief is pal­pa­ble: here is an Amer­i­can space where women can park and be left alone. A space so pri­vate that — as Are Your Pop­u­lar? (1947)” dark­ly demon­strates — they can even be dead in their car and still no one notices or both­ers them.

The Jew­ish ele­ments of Use­ful Junk, while less explic­it than in Meitner’s Berru Award-win­ning Holy Moly Car­ry Me (2018), are still cen­tral to the book. We learn that the sex­u­al­i­ty puls­ing through the col­lec­tion is not only anoth­er trick of per­i­menopause.” The sex­u­al­i­ty also stems from a warn­ing from the speaker’s grand­moth­er who, in her clipped Czech accent,” instruct­ed the speak­er to stay open to plea­sure to pro­vide plea­sure to accept plea­sure.” This may be the same grand­moth­er we meet in My True List of Facts” who worked as a nurse-mid­wife in the Sos­nowiec ghet­to and had to euth­a­nize her own daugh­ter whom I was named for because/​the SS were toss­ing babies from the win­dows of cat­tle cars.” In oth­er words, this book’s imper­a­tive to seek plea­sure is also a tes­ta­ment to — and revenge for — how much plea­sure has been stolen, sti­fled, and murdered.

While this collection’s speak­er does not feel at home any­where except some sub­way platforms/​and when I’m in motion pass­ing through cor­ri­dors or ter­mi­nals,” we nev­er­the­less get some vital depic­tions of rur­al and indus­tri­al Appalachia, an under­ex­am­ined region in Jew­ish poet­ics. Impor­tant­ly, this speak­er does not just toss in Appalachi­an scenery as a metaphor for her own pain — a com­mon trope in con­tem­po­rary poet­ry. On the con­trary, this speak­er address­es the deval­u­a­tion of the region: the New Riv­er is one of the five old­est rivers/​in the world but no one who doesn’t live here knows this I live here.” When this speak­er dri­ves past fac­to­ries, she knows what she is dri­ving past:

rid­ing shot­gun past the Celanese plant

at dusk mid-Decem­ber this sprawl­ing fac­to­ry on the New River

the world’s largest pro­duc­er of cel­lu­lose acetate tow used in

cig­a­rette fil­ters lit by sodi­um vapor the plant glows orange-

tipped the smoke­stacks smoking

This is a book with views/​/​of black cows, heads bent/​some gal­lop­ing across a field” and a runaway/​truck ramp on I‑85, rut­ted.” In a line that per­haps best cap­tures the collection’s inter­sec­tion of sex­u­al­i­ty and place, the speak­er takes nude self­ies and remarks I don’t care if neigh­bors who shoot and four-wheel at the same time see me.” Indeed, Meitner’s vir­tu­osic range and com­mand of place result in a book that insists that we see and under­stand each oth­er. Lis­ten” she writes, we are making/​/​art because we want to inhab­it everything/​and not fear it” .

Alli­son Pitinii Davis is the author of Line Study of a Motel Clerk (Baobab Press, 2017), a final­ist for the Berru Poet­ry Award and the Ohioana Book Award. 

Discussion Questions