The newest book of poetry from Rachel Wiley (she/her) entitled Revenge Body says something immediately. Typically, a “revenge body” is when post-break up a person loses a bunch of weight and transforms their look to be more sexy and confident, thus making the partner (who usually cheated or did the dumping) feel like an idiot for missing out. Thus, revenge. But Wiley is a fat woman, what some call super fat, and her title subverts expectation.
In the titular poem, Wiley re-imagines that claim that “living inside every fat woman is a skinny woman waiting to get out” as an actual separate thin human inside of a fat body body. What if that woman inside gets out and takes over the fat woman’s life? Interestingly, Wiley places the most destruction at the fat woman’s wedding. The thin woman wears the wedding dress better, she’s a better sexual partner, she leaves the fat woman to be sad by the cake. But when most authors imagine fat people are sad all the time, Wiley implies the thin woman stole the fat woman’s happiness, not vice versa. It’s her wedding, she has a fiance, she’s having a party! The thin woman is almost symbolic of prejudice and privilege, and thus Wiley has written humor through the absurd and made a real point about societal bigotry.
Perhaps I’d forgotten, but I do not remember Wiley writing about a brother in Fat Girl Finishing School or Nothing is Okay. His violent nature, and Wiley’s mother’s unwillingness to acknowledge or do something about her son, is a theme in Revenge Body. In the poem “Want Not” Wiley writes:
In place of family photos, the walls hosts ornate portraits of my estranged brother's fists cradled in the plaster. His knuckles follow me around the room though he hasn't laid a finger here in 20 years.
Wiley’s imagery effectively evokes the physical — actual damage on the wall — and the emotional reaction to evidence of his presence decades past. Although several poems resurrect her brother through imagery, Wiley also turns that keen eye on other objects.
For example, in “Multimedia Portrait of the Artist’s Grandma,” she notes that when she gets mail from her grandma, “the return address label still [holds] a dead man’s name like a traveling headstone.” I knew immediately what Wiley meant. When it was common for wives to be Mrs. Husband’s First and Last Name, everything from checkbooks to address labels had his name, not hers. Wiley’s grandma is a widow. Has she not finished grieving? Is grandma unused to being an individual? Or perhaps she’s not motivated to update a stamper or book of stickers with labels? Is this laziness, or maybe she doesn’t see the point because she doesn’t have her own identity? What if grandma is frugal and doesn’t want to update her stationary supplies? Each door is an option to see more into who grandma is.
Wiley’s collection is another breathtaking work from Button Poetry, and in it she spreads out a bit, trying a couple of forms (sestinas, I believe), making some poems into the shape of the topic (like a house), and is does less prose poem than in the past, really pushing those words to do more work. Highly recommended.
CW: abuse, racism, fat shaming