Elizabeth C. Garcia’s new chapbook Stunt Double (Finishing Line Press, 2015) is a strong contribution to the field of Mormon poetry. While not overtly Mormon in content, it addresses many of the themes and preoccupations—social and theological—that Mormons grapple with regularly. Specifically, Garcia’s poems display an obsession with the internal landscape of family dynamics, foregrounding intricate ties that bind parents to each other and their children. Often, Mormons speak of interest in these ties as the “Spirit of Elijah,” or the turning of generational hearts to each other. While this “spirit” is usually associated with genealogical work, Garcia’s poems show how the it can manifest itself as we seek to understand the nature of family, generations, and the lived, enduring consequences of human relationships.
We see this happen, always subtly, in most poems in the collection. In “Leaving California,” a poem Garcia dedicates to her mother, we see how something as simple as a cross-country move accentuates the cost of family life on the individual:
She bundled up her baby, all her mother things, her books,
till the blue wagon was full. Her husband drove the whole way,
so she watched the desert, how it stood still for minutes
at a time, only moved when she wasn’t looking, like her life,
plucked, because he had a dream:
they would live in Georgia, where she knew no one,
The imagery of the young, patriarchal family is familiar—though hardly unique—to the Mormon-American experience, especially when coupled with the diasporic theme of leaving a desert home for points east. The poem captures a sense of the sacrificial aspect of family and leaving by defining the young mother by what she has now—“her mother things, her books”—and what is ahead of her—the (uncertain) fulfillment of her husband’s dream, a life in Georgia. By embracing family life, that is, the mother finds herself “plucked” not only from her former home, but also from sole control over her life’s direction.
For Mormon readers, particularly, the poem evokes the story of Lehi and Sariah, encouraging them to rethink traditional readings of the Book of Mormon narrative that focus on Lehi and Nephi at the expense of Sariah and her feelings. In a sense, the poem asks readers to reflect on ways sacred stories conceal and reveal additional, equally enlightening perspectives—thus nudging to be more engaged and conscientious readers.
Overtly Mormon readings of Garcia’s poems are not required to appreciate Stunt Double, to be sure. Throughout the collection, Garcia strikes at situations and themes that are more universal than provincial—from watching classic films to losing one’s virginity. Several poems, for example, explore the process of coming-of-age, which we normally associate with adolescence. These poems, however, remind us that growing up is an ironic process that never truly ends, regardless of what beliefs or world views shape maturity. In “Labor Day, One Year Married,” a poem about newlyweds doing yardwork, the irony presents itself in the closing lines:
I don’t know how many shovelfuls I’d strained against, committed,
before noticing the quiet that had settled on my shoulders
for some time. That stopping, I knew he was back there, sitting.
Breathing. Hiding how the weight he’d added on
was bearing down on him, lungs filling with the rocks,
shovel by shovel, wishing he’d spent that extra hundred bucks
for someone else to do this, thinking that one year ago,
we were young, and no one minded all that rock.
With the phrase “we were young,” the poem plays with the mythic idea that marriage is an arrival or sorts to the adult world, an end of youth—that those who tie the knot have magically set aside the classroom and playground of youth for something higher and better.
The wish and thought that ends this poem, however, speak to the naiveté of the speaker, the ongoing lesson that life is, as well as the sense of loss that comes with each new lesson—a kind of nostalgic looking back at the salt pillar of younger days. It suggests that marriage is another space for coming-of-age narratives.
Appropriately, as Garcia explores the nature of growing up, relationships, marriage, and family, she returns time and again to the figures of Adam and Eve, reminding us that these mortal struggles have been around for a long time. God, too, makes an appearance—and, appropriately, in the poem “God as Intern,” he is a learning, progressing God:
it was good, eons before
there was a before,
how many scraps did it take
to learn to measure twice,
Ultimately, Stunt Double delivers a short collection of poems that is as thought-provoking as it is endlessly readable. Garcia’s has carefully honed her craft, like the God in her poem, offering readers an experience that is a challenge and a delight for people of all backgrounds. Each poem moves seamlessly between spheres—heaven and earth, past and present, husband and wife, parent and child—offering readers a sense of the enormity of human experience and why it matters.
I received a review copy from the author. Copies of Stunt Double can be purchased from the Finishing Line Press website.