Revenge Body by Rachel Wiley

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

23 comments

  1. This sounds like a great collection. And neat to be able to see the author’s progression and connections with previous work. That tradition of addressing a woman as Mrs. Husband’s Name seems to be dying, thankfully. I can only think of one time I’ve ever received mail addressed to Mrs. Peter!

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  2. Sounds like a great collection. Also my grandma never used her own name, always Mrs husband’s name even for the 15 years she lived after he died. She was so very confused when I got married and didn’t change my name.

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    • I did change my name because it was extra important to my husband (he was on his third last name — long story), so I didn’t mind! My ol’ Granny would make out checks with a hyphenated last name for me, which the banks definitely side-eyed.

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    • Like, she really exists and takes over your life! I had this as an idea for a story once, and I sort of puzzled it out in my head. It just got more and more bizarre, but also depressing. Maybe that means a poem is just long enough.

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  3. These sound good and thought-inspiring. Regarding grandma, might be frugality. When my Auntie Linda’s husband died, until she moved house, she continued to use her address labels on the back of envelops, but crossed out “Terry and …” in biro! We received one Christmas card to Mr and Mrs M. Dexter, it does make me cross but it’s an older relative so we kind of just accept it for now.

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  4. Poor Milly, who never took my name, always had to put up with Mrs me whenever the school wanted to talk to her about the kids. My oldest daughter responded by changing her surname to Milly’s, which worked.
    My last wife, when we broke up, we both lost weight. Was it revenge? Maybe.

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    • Ha, I like this oldest daughter of yours. What a power move to change her name.

      I think you got sad skinny. A lot of divorced people get sad skinny and then laugh about how ironic it is to look more socially acceptable when you’ve never felt worse.

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  5. The shape poem – is that like, the words on a page form the same shape the poem is talking about? Like the poem would look like a cat on the page, and the poem is about cats – such a cute idea!

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  6. I would be one of those old women who are too lazy to change anything. I get so many free address labels from places that I used to donate to, why would I bother paying for something just to have something different on it? Now, if Rob and I divorced, that would be a different story. (Also, none of our stuff says Mrs. Man’s Name Here so it’s not much of an issue for me.)

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    • You just quietly cutting Rob’s name out of everything, lol.

      Does it make you angry that places you donate to pretty much spam you right after? I feel like I gave them money so they could slowly mail it back to me…

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      • They actually weren’t that bad while I was donating but once I stopped, that’s when I began receiving pages and pages of address labels and calendars and offers of free stuff if I donate again. It doesn’t seem like the best use of your limited funds but I guess charities have to advertise just like businesses to bring in the cash.

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  7. I will have to look this up as it sounds great. I stopped reading poetry collections for a while, not for any particular reason, but one of my friends is working on her first collection and I’ve been giving her feedback – so I am trying to get familiar with the conventions of poetry publishing etc so that my feedback is better informed.

    Re last names – I know everyone feels differently about this but it’s still pretty common for a woman to take her husband’s last name in the UK and not particularly controversial. For my part I’ve never quite understood what would be feminist about keeping my dad’s name rather than taking my husband’s. I mean, I didn’t get a say in who my dad was, and most people these days choose their spouse, so really it feels like it would be *more* independent to take my husband’s name? Perhaps I would feel differently if I’d actually been in a position where I had to make the choice. (I would not drop “Dr” for “Mrs”, though, nor would I marry anyone who felt I should).

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    • It’s still the norm in the U.S. for a woman to take her husband’s last name, but it’s the Mrs. Nick Page that would grind some gears, as if the woman isn’t deserving of her own first name and is a possession. You’re totally right about father vs. husband. I think some women want to keep their maiden name (even that term! maiden!) because they’ve developed an identity around it. One issue I’m seeing in my sign language interpreting program is that we’re working on building a trustworthy brand, and you’re supposed to have your name how you want it figured out. Are you Lilly or Lil, Madison or Maddy, that sort of thing. But I’m assuming most of these students will change their last names at some point in the future. In that case, if they had a reputation by name, I would keep my maiden name if I were in their shoes.

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