Review: A Victorian Dollhousing Ceremony
Reader, beware: A Victorian Dollhousing Ceremony by Kristin Garth, Tianna Hansen, and Justin Karcher is a tale full of magic, fire, and horror. Truly the stuff of nightmares, the idea for this collection was born from a dark dream of poet Kristin Garth’s who then enlisted poets Tianna Hansen and Justin Karcher and illustrator Russ Daum to help her bring the story to life. This dark fantasy opera is told through three distinct poetic voices: The Doll (Garth), The Firebird (Hansen) and the Wizard (Karcher). Their voices stand alone, both in style and in character, but weave together to create something entirely new. The table of contents hints at the bones of the story, as the poems are collected into chapters or acts: birth, pangs, flames, firebirds, diminish, wizards, skeletons, paper, dollhousing, fingers, enlightenment, firefly, and torch. It is a tale of trauma, desire, and the search for safety in a dark and treacherous world. All three characters respond to fear and trauma in different ways, and we see how their responses affect one another and their world. The Doll and The Firebird seem strikingly similar at first glance: they are dancers and survivors of abuse. But while their stories share certain parallels, it is clear that their responses to their pasts actually looks quite different. This is apparent even when examining poetic voice and form: The Firebird is fierce, competitive, and hungry, and her poems are long and passion-filled: “Feet are talons arched and aimed to strike / audience becomes prey / awed & open-mouthed / flaming light cast upon them / you are constellations / an entire solar system wrapped into bird-woman / this is all / you waited to become.” The Doll remains more open and vulnerable, and her gentle voice is exemplified by Garth’s use of the sonnet form with its song-like rhythms and rhyme schemes: “By night, you bleed within, a sacrifice / that does not end at barre or with your art— / new bruises, uses, love you pay for twice, / pink tights, fishnets, careless rips of heart.” The Wizard, too, has seen the worst of the weary world. The collection actually opens with him and his bleak beginnings on the edge of a “mighty city” full of great things, yes, but also death and despair. His path is one of alchemy and change, as he toils to transform the darkness he sees into something better: “we were orphans that turned maggots into magic.” His poems are long, philosophical and sprawling—he is always looking at the bigger picture, wishing there was some way to protect what little good is left in his world. When The Wizard encounters The Doll, he is immediately taken with her, and is determined to possess and protect her. Envious of her dancing and the attention The Wizard gives The Doll, The Firebird helps him trick her, a vain and misguided hope: “just think / what it would be like / if you have no / competing sunrise.” The Wizard gives The Doll a shrinking potion that makes her small and paper thin, his misguided attempt at keeping her safe: “shrinking beautiful things to hide them / from an ever-growing ugly.” But even the wizard begins to doubt himself, and so does The Firebird. In the last act their fates are so impossibly intertwined—but is it death or freedom they find at the end? There is an argument, I think, for hope in the last few poems. In his final poem The Wizard muses, “wouldn’t it be nice if beauty leaves this world on its own terms?” And this feels like the crux of it somehow—The Wizard accepting his fate, The Firebird realizing her true form in all of its chaotic beauty, and The Doll finally free from all of the cruelty and manipulation. This book has given me so much to chew on, and I’ve read and re-read it trying my best to describe the depth and breadth managed by these three talented writers. Collaborative projects can be hard to navigate for both writers and readers alike, but here I found the differences in style and substance became a strength. It has left me contemplating what is left when we do not trust ourselves, what secrets we hold and how they shape us, and what it means when we decide to change our own stories.
A Victorian Dollhousing Ceremony is a poetic operatic adult fairytale collaboration of three poets (Kristin Garth, Tianna Hansen, and Justin Karcher) writing in three different, distinct styles. It is available for purchase from Rhythm & Bones Press.