Jenn McCreary: & Now My Feet Are Maps

Review by Ariella Ruth


Like waking up in Never Neverland. Or Oz. Or on top of a mountain in a mystical forest. Or in a child’s folk song. Or at a carnival at sunset. Or at the last night of summer camp. In the opening pages of Jenn McCreary’s poems & Now My Feet Are Maps, I feel I have stepped into these universes simultaneously and barefoot. The air feels different, lighter, and every color appears more textured and vibrant than I’ve experienced before. I am running and carefree, flying through a childhood universe in an adult body, and the speaker in these poems conveys something similar: “she expected the world / to be smaller, the prophecy to rhyme, but remains / unbowed, a monarch marked in absentia.”

I immediately enter into the exposed toes of the “doomed, ill-treated heroines of children’s literature,” as McCreary describes the book on her blog in response to The Next Big Thing, a series of self-interviews with writers. This heroine is a culmination of the heroines that have voiced our childhood bedtime stories for decades: Wendy Darling from Peter Pan, Susan Pevensie from the Chronicles of Narnia, and many others.

Section one of this book, “Odyssey & Oracle,” is a constant state of arrival. The universe that’s presented here is clearly full of magic, and a place so rich with magic aches to be rid of logic and rules: “the day the boy learns I cannot control time is tragic / for both of us, having already lost / the weather.” The hapless heroine-narrator traverses a landscape of fantasy while trying to make sense of her surroundings through familiar themes and strange occurrences, from pretending to be gargoyles to the whispers of memorable childhood rhymes: “bye-bye, blackbird.” The familiar works as a necessity, grounding the reader in a book-world that is still unknown and difficult to define, fluctuating with each enjambment, thrilling and frightening, a clash of stories and lifetimes. Shakespeare references at a tea party; lyrics from The Moldy Peaches’ “Anyone Else But You”; holding your breath and pinching your eyes shut to make a wish; staring up at the sky, wide-eyed, “where the biker / gang sets the sky / on fire”; counting down the impending moments to the apocalypse—the heroine is vulnerable in a compelling state of chaos and is learning to let go: “we hold back the naysayers, / we have no regrets at bedtime.” This magical scene is engendered by language, the alignment and application of words. The glimpse McCreary creates is a moment in that beautiful, groundless reality for which poetry strives.

This reality continues into section two, “Magpie Augury,” a section led, line by line, by a children’s rhyme that brings a cadence into the work that didn’t exist in the uneven thoughts and stream of consciousness of “Odyssey & Oracle.” Despite this cadence, a small bit of the fantasy has worn off in the more structured form of section two. Each page consists of a small block of justified text, which immediately grounds the heroine after section one, where the content and the arrangement are more free-flowing. This section is less whimsical but more alive in the present moment: “as if there is no future at all, just the past steadily accumulating.” Though the language here feels more settled and relatable, a calm earth still feels a distance away.

Existing somewhere between the apocalypse and post-catastrophe, this section speaks of evil spirits and zombies infecting humans. The heroine seems fragile here, but in a different way than the opening section. Her feet have rediscovered earth again but the surface is shaking; navigation is still occurring. In The Next Big Thing, McCreary speaks to the overarching issue that she wrestles with in this work: “the woman at the center of the heroic quest: as healer/caretaker, as mother/lover, as maiden/witch/crone.” The struggle is narrative and constant throughout these poems that reach for a moment of tranquility. The vibrations described in this section are brief and dark but still hold elements of a child’s voice with recurrent images of water to bring moments of breath and clarity. The nursery rhyme, “one for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl & four for a boy,” and so on, is a story about determining good or bad luck based on the number of magpies one sees. This rhyme as the thread of section two feels both charming and haunting. The heroine soaks in her surroundings to better understand the story itself. The rhythm stays through each block of text, pulling the poem along to the next page.

The pages in section three, “Maps & Legends,” read as a series of instructions. The directions consist of tasks that would only exist in an enchanted forest:

When you come to the tower at the edge
of the forest, go inside & climb the spiral
staircase. Open the door to a room full of glass

The voice giving directions predicts every occurrence before it happens: “Warning: the angry fairy will try to draw / blood.” From sparkling fireflies to a dark forest, the twists of section three crisscross through this dreamlike land where each adventure is spontaneous yet predicted through the legends. The motive for following these maps falls aside as the heroine gets caught up in the characters that she encounters along the way (the Crone, the Onceler Queen, princes and princesses). The landscape reveals itself with each step: “{the grass is so soft here}” as murmurs of Beauty and the Beast, Sleeping Beauty, and the folksong “Barbara Allen” slip softly into the colorful backdrop of a section that concludes with the realization: you must choose your own adventure. It’s your turn.

The adventure inevitably leads to the final section, titled “Haunted Forest.” Following in the footsteps of the three sections that preceded it, section four reads as a continuation, yet the layout of the poems look dissimilar from the rest. These short poems have their own title, which begin to tell the small story on each poem’s page. The heroine has an epiphany; one we all know but still need to hear: “In a fairytale, when you / think you’re out of the woods / you’re not.”

The heroine, who has gone through all incarnations of this exploration, finally has a moment of ease, where there are hints towards a chance to be a child again, to enjoy the reward of finding something close to an end point. “It was / too hot & too much / happened.” Imagery of darkness and the ending of things are strewn throughout this section, from a reference to the melancholy folk song “In the Pines” to swarms of ravens, secrets imbedded in her young, flowing hair. The final poem speaks to all that has happened here, referring to it, the story in these pages, as “Making sense / of another dark night I’m learning / to unwait.”

McCreary’s & Now My Feet Are Maps speaks to the cyclical tendencies of fairy tales, how we get lost in them, how they morph and meld in and out of one another in our memories, and pick up pieces of our history and popular culture along the way. Dark forests turn light as soon as a new stanza begins, the heroine goes from adult to child and back to adult again in search of a happy ending, the fearless journey to make it through the madness.

Despite the common appearance, our words
have rooted in different sources. Exercises
in mis-reading. The way moths fly
like they’re broken.