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Grotesquerie for the Apocalypse by Vik Shirley (Beir Bua Press)

Grotesquerie for the Apocalypse by Vik Shirley (Beir Bua Press)

Vik Shirley’s latest publication brings together poetry written at roughly the same time as her debut pamphlet Corpses, published in early 2020The poems share the same preoccupation with the macabre that made Corpses feel so prescient in the early days of the pandemic. Two years on, with the virus now a permanent fixture in our lives, this poetry still feels topical, its ghoulish humour prompting a much-needed laugh. 

The new collection opens with a series of individual poems, some lineated but most in prose, evoking various absurd scenarios. Shirley identifies Russell Edson and Daniil Kharms as influences, and many of the poems have a surreal quality. The humour arises from Shirley’s witty juxtaposition of the gruesome and the mundane.

In the opening poem, ‘Not in Kansas’, the narrator steps out into the garden to find herself in a ‘mud wrestling ring’ pitted against an opponent with ‘enormous biceps and a tan to die for’. We’re somewhere in the 1980s but before the bout gets underway a ‘Mad-Max-esque’ plane lands, chopping the narrator into pieces. The time shifts to the 1930s, and at the bottom of her ‘bloody legs and feet – now miles/apart – are some ruby slippers’.

In ‘Torso’ a bloody torso drags itself to a kiosk where it asks for cigarettes, the girl behind the counter seeing no reason not to serve this ‘stump’ since it’s paying cash. In ‘The Performance’ a woman eats a live rat after initially experiencing a crisis of confidence in her ability to go through with the act. Buoyed by her triumph she pencils in an event for 2023 at which she proposes to eat a ‘non-specified reptile’.

The middle section of the book is a sequence of prose poems which originated from a ‘cute-studies’ conference held  in Japan in 2019. Shirley’s poems transform the super-cute world of Hello Kitty into an orgy of depravity by splicing in text from Koji Suzuki’s horror novel Ring. This mash up of two very different genres is not only funny, it’s also unsettling, exposing the horror that often underlies the seeming normality of the everyday. This extract from ‘Weekend at Grandma’s’ is fairly typical:

Grandma has such a good imagination, and loves the faint smell of blood. She teaches Hello Kitty a certain universal evil and how to be eaten. Sunday morning, Grandma shows Hello Kitty how to make black particles and splatters in violent succession. Hello Kitty sifts the repugnance and adds the terror. After mixing the bowels, Grandma pours it into the cake pans.

The final section of the book is a sequence of prose poems titled ‘Apocalypse Poems’. These imagine various grotesque responses to the impending end of the world, including bunkers where punters can get married ‘in the style of Hitler and Eva Braun’ just before committing suicide, and a family riven by historical grudges killing each other in a huge row before the ‘end’ has time to claim them. These poems offer brilliant, acerbic parodies of the way certain people behave when faced with a crisis, be that a deadly virus or other existential threat. 

This is poetry for our times, both darkly funny and deadly serious. 

Simon Collings 8th December 2021

The Continued Closure of the Blue Door by Vik Shirley (HVTN Press)

The Continued Closure of the Blue Door by Vik Shirley (HVTN Press)

Vik Shirley’s pamphlet Corpses, which came out earlier this year, was a work of exquisitely macabre humour. Her collection The Continued Closure of the Blue Door continues the preoccupation with mortality in its sequence of witty poems called ‘death & the girls’. The first four, which are in unpunctuated prose, chart the zany responses of various women to the unavoidable presence of the grim reaper. 

eleanor kept banging on that death was a charmless motherfucker a charmless motherfucker she’d say fairly vindictively this actually wasn’t true but then she’d witnessed him eating pork pie jelly whilst wearing sock garters so no one could really argue

The six ‘death reveries’ which follow are in the form of calligrams, the first in the shape of a coffin, the sixth that of a bottle. The speaker of the poems imagines her funeral, wake, and legacy, but rather than being maudlin these texts are a rich and furious evocation of life. The coffin is to be decorated with an array of eccentric illustrations and objects, and to act as a stage for an impossible dance performance. The funeral procession, a meandering text of increasing width and font size, is equally fantastical, a carnival parade of bizarre characters with music to match. I particularly liked ‘Death Reverie #5’, in the shape of a cross, which begins:

I want my guilt and shame to be left to

the Catholic Church. It seems the most

reliable place for it to be successfully


The range of subjects covered by the collection as a whole extends well beyond mortality. The epigraph to the book is a quote from James Tate: ‘That whole day was like a dream leaking into our satchel.’ Shirley has said that Tate is a major influence, and there is a similarly absurd humour in the work of both poets, a transformation of everyday events into something strange and disconcerting, like the woman in the opening poem in the collection, who falls in love with her husband’s electric razor. 

Prose rhythms and cadences dominate in this poetry, though relatively few of the poems appear as justified blocks of text. The opening section includes lineated prose poems, and poems set as justified text but within a narrow margin. In the second section, ‘elephant’, the text is in an open-field format, but with each fragment of text terminating in a single or double forward slash. Some lines also have a slash/double slash within the line. The sequence describes the brief celebrity of its central eponymous character:

elephant out till all hours /

fallen in with /

            erroneous crowd /

                                                                        we ask / who released

                                                            the elephant /

the elephant watching /

smoking cigars /

Section IV, ‘the nervous tic’, like the first, groups poems in a variety of formats. ‘Nunchucks and Weather’ is a sequence of short lyrics. One of these describes how, despite having many visitors, a lighthouse has difficulty ‘meeting other structures / with similar hopes and aspirations.’ 

The final section, ‘the blue door’, returns to an open-field style but with a mix of font sizes for emphasis. Again some texts here use forward slashes, or in a number of cases vertical lines, as punctuation. ‘it’s not every day you find an opera singer in your tumble dryer’ is a wonderfully comic piece. Having discovered a tumble dryer singing ‘Che gelida manina’ (an aria from La Bohème) on an island in a lake, the narrator wonders who could be responsible:

                                                                              as the squirrels

                                             although fairly gung-ho and not lacking in chutzpah

where it comes to matters of nuts and trees   weren’t –

                                                      as far as I knew – familiar

                                           with the musical scores of Puccini

Another delightful piece in this last section is a set of reflections on a Barbara Guest poem, ‘Twilight Polka Dots’. The final poem, ‘Never been to Volkovo’, appears to be a collage of lines from Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground.  

The formal variety and inventiveness of the work collected here stretches the ‘prose poem’ beyond the confines of a static block of text. The playfulness and humour of the writing are highly engaging. It is an impressive first collection. 

Simon Collings 16th December 2020

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