By Jeri Kroll
Puncher and Wattmann
ISBN 9781922186, 2015
Diana is a nineteen year old university student, living at home and struggling with her body, her sense of self, and her fears of the future. The scene is set from the first poem “Profile”, where Diana profiles herself as being too short (“Some torture is called for:/bring back the rack.”), too heavy, and self-destructive. By the third poem, “Losing It”, we learn that Diana has set herself a terrible, but frighteningly familiar, mission to lose weight: “I’m counting down to zero.” Vanishing Point is an extraordinary coming-of-age novel written in deep, intimate verse. It leads the reader into a voyeuristic journey that moves from Diana’s confessions, her self-mythologising and through pain, asceticism, loss and healing. There are a number of voices in the work, but Diana’s is the most pervasive, and one that most female readers at least, will recognise parts of.
The book is rich with mythology, particularly the many references to the austere virgin goddess Diana, with whom Diana feels an affinity:
I’m on her trail, hunting alter egos.
She won’t escape, my namesake.
Scraps of myth, legendary lies,
tales of haughty heroes.
I century-hop, follow every scent. (“Baptism”)
Alice in Wonderland also makes an repeated appearance, becoming a metaphor for the physical and mental transformations and challenges Diana faces as she works her way through her own personal rabbit hole: “Like the rabbit, she doesn’t belong.”
Diana’s story is told in three parts. The first, “Losing It”, is the most chilling, as it takes us into the heart of Diana’s self-loathing which manifests as a deadly eating disorder. The title poem makes it Diana’s single-minded goal very clear:
she’s nothing special,
but her figure is to die for,
or will be soon.
The poetry is confessional and written almost as diary entries or even soliloquy. The reader is invited in as confidante; made complicit in Diana’s project. There are other distractions in Diana’s life though that pull her back to ground, no matter how hard she tries to block them out, and Kroll gives these characters their own voices throughout the work. There is Diana’s brother Philip, who has Down Syndrome. Philip and Diana have and a strong affinity that goes well beyond the burden of Philip’s care. In some ways, it’s Philip who saves Diana and teaches her about life and love. There’s Lacey, Diana’s mother, whose own eating disorders are subverted in her daughter as she retreats from her children’s needs into food and her religion. There’s Robert, Diana’s father, who doesn’t understand anyone in his family, and who retreats into his work, shed and a simmering resentment: “I’m the one who’s left to make repairs. /This is a job I can’t retire from.” While the family begins to disintegrate, Diana makes up for her lack of control by increasing the control her own body’s functions. There’s also Diana’s grandmother, and Conor, Diana’s Irish love interest who races horses and who has lost his own mother. Conor’s story is almost as compelling as Diana’s:
What I miss most is green. The misty morning grass that crushed sweet under the horses’ hooves as I led them out from the field. And my father’s fields fringed by sycamores, larches and oaks, with their leaves flapping in a brisk wind making the horses skittish. The leaves shiny like cooking apples. Typical of my family’s luck. We sold up just before the housing boom reached us and money started flowing into our county from Dublin. (“Conor: Climate Change”)
Each of these voices are unique, and consistent through the text, but they all pivot around Diana and her narrative arc. The section ends with the title poem, an intense climax of pain:
Nothing more to add to my story,
compressed to a point with its own meaning,
a hole in the ice
into which I can vanish.
As Diana wakes in a hospital bed, the book transitions into the second part: “Plateau”. We begin to learn about Diana’s multiple voices, meet an older, elegant Cancer patient, Mariska, and Diana’s psychiatrist, coined “Dr Head.” As Diana begins her slow return to health, the characters around her grow and change, mingling voices, coming and then disappearing. It’s in part two that the Alice in Wonderland theme becomes strongest, with several poems referencing it as Diana struggles through a range of therapies to understand which of the many voices in her head are real:
Should I invite her in
to that forbidden country
from which no traveller returns?
My frozen wastes, my sad geography. Is that truly me?
In the third part of the book, “Gaining It”, Diana’s baptism of fire leads her into wellness. She develops another self that also references with her goddess namesake: “”Artemis of the wildland, Mistress of Animals”. Through Conor, Diana finds a strong affinity with horses that gives her purpose and bolsters her recovery:
This is my work
and I am good at it.
I thank whatever nameless gods there are for giving me
good work to finally do. (“Good Works”)
At no point does the book lose its dramatic momentum. In fact, so compelling is the plot at times that it takes some effort to slow down and read the poems fully as poetry should be read, rather than racing on to see what happens. Vanishing Point is quick and easy to read, but the poems repay second and third readings where the complexity of the work begin to unfold. Diana’s self-awareness grows viscerally and sensually as she comes to accept the sensations of her adult body through the final section:
What’s normal? I realise no one can say,
not when you spy into people’s heads,
and see the backdrop of their every days,
hear that voice that tells them what to hate
and hopefully to love. One thing I feel:
our silent bodies sometimes speak the truth. (“Normal”)
Though Vanishing Point is ultimately an affirmative and satisfying book, Kroll resists the urge to make everything perfectly okay for Diana and her family. The voices are still there, goading Diana, reminding her that all happiness is ‘fools gold’. Nevertheless, Vanishing Point shows, in the most exquisite poetry, that fleeting joy is real transcendence. It’s enough to be here now:
everything fluid and free
in our endless circle.
It’s what we are for
in the time we have left.
No one else needs to know who, why or how.
now. (“Racing the Kangaroo Island Bus”)
About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball is the author of the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrustand Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Sublime Planet, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks. Find out more about Magdalena at http://www.magdalenaball.com