In their debut collection, the chapbook Prophet Fever (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2016), Wren (formerly Jennifer) Hanks throws their reader into an apocalyptic world of zombie dogs, an evil Virgin Mary, and teen degeneracy. These poems are at turns lyrical, horrific, sexy, and tragic.
The speaker of the collection is a teenage boy named Wren, who is visited in the introductory poem by a wolf, a harbinger of impending doom. She anoints Wren the voice of the second coming: "You are Wren the charcoal star / You are flesh that survives a fire."
Throughout these poems, Wren's adolescent sex life is conflated with his relationship to the wolf:
Breathing against my stomach she ashes what's left of the fear-- like that boy who kissed me before I could stop him his hands reaching up to grab my face (6).
Mary's first visitation, like the wolf's presence, is saturated with sex. She demonstrates her powers by handing Wren an ice cube flickering with flame, and he is reminded, "A boy once put an ice cube in his mouth and held it to my neck. He called me Sacred Heart Wren when I dripped the wax from a prayer candle onto his stomach." Mary reads his mind, telling him, "That sacred heart of yours belongs to me."
This collection is both erotic and grotesque. Wren's sexuality is still formative, experimental, awkward: "My mouth is crusted with cheetos--hickeys under my shirt hickeys hugging my ribs." Both childhood and sex mark his body. The apocalypse, in this collection, is itself eroticized, perhaps the culmination of a long-held desire for destruction. For example, Wren's dogs turn to zombies, and Hanks's seductive language intensifies the horror of their transformation: "Their skins fall open / like curtains / letting / in gloaming / bones shine like wet lips" (12). These poems are punctuated by sex, the horror of the apocalypse conflated with seduction and desire.
Wren's mother also appears throughout the collection as a figure of neglect and mental illness. We first meet her in the grocery store, where she hides meat beneath her raincoat in the belief it will be reborn. She comes home days later smelling like "worms of ground beef," presenting Wren with the rotting flesh. It seems Wren might be an ideal mouthpiece for Mary partly because of his mother, who "molds sinking further into the couch under layers of paper towels" while he works to spread word of the world's end. It is ambiguous whether she really is this sick or Mary has expedited her mental deterioration. When Wren's pet dogs begin to zombify, his mother doesn't notice a thing, though they "spit out their molars all over the carpet."
Through the horror of the zombie dogs and the terrifying Virgin, Wren confronts the questions that plague any thinking being, the things we, too, might ask the Virgin Mary if she appeared in our living rooms. In poem 10, he says,
What will happen when I die? I want to ask No really ask No really Mary is there a place for these bodies in the afterlife really?
The simplicity of the language belies the complexity of the question--he wants to ask, but really ask, somehow really understand the things no human can. But he never asks, Mary never answers. Instead he packs his bags, sheds his mother, who fights his departure, "picked up the dog skins and draped them over the couch like blankets," "smeared the blood on her face like makeup." She shrinks to the size of a sea monkey, tiny enough to fit in Wren's bag, or she dies, "her soul rising pink and gold."
The splintering of possibilities for the mother's end mirrors the broken world, Wren's splintered identity as teenager, son, prophet. But Mary cannot abide the splintering. His mother dead, Wren's life on the road as a traveling preacher begins. The book ends with an epilogue, "Bone Heel Sermon," the last lines of which are, "I might as well put my hand in a deep fryer / but I say:" Hanks leaves us hanging, intimating the possibility of a full length collection, in which we might be lucky enough to have front row seats to the end of the world as Wren preaches of its demise.
Prophet Fever is available for purchase from Hyacinth Girl Press here.
Jade Hurter is a poet and teacher living in New Orleans. Her first collection, the chapbook Slut Songs, is forthcoming from Hyacinth Girl Press in 2017. She was a finalist in the 2016 Tennessee Williams Poetry Contest, judged by Yusef Komunyakaa, and her recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Tinderbox, Animal Literary Magazine, New South, The Columbia Poetry Review, and elsewhere.