Minerva The Miscarriage of the Brain (Johanna Hedva, with illustrations by Isabelle Albuquerque)

Reviewed by PF Anderson

To write this review, I am wearing a blazing red t-shirt with the famous Audre Lorde quotation, “Your silence will not protect you” in a palette of tropical-colored bold block letters. It seemed fitting, in a sense. Nothing about this work is quiet, or safe. In fact, it is loud–painfully so–and hammers away at its audience, demanding a full engagement. In a sense, this is less of a review, and more…a recounting of a reading as an experience. 

If you take your hands, pick up a copy of this work, and turn the pages, looking at the words, you might be forgiven for mistaking it as a book. I did, at first. The quality of the paper, the sheer sensuality and rugged durability of the cover, the clarity and shimmer of the inks…these all speak to exceptional production values, and lead (or mislead?) the reader to perceiving this as a book. It gives off an air of being a volume created at least in part as an artefact and an art object in its own right. 

I realized early on that reading this doesn’t feel like reading a book, but I was lost when trying to articulate what it felt like. It wasn’t until deep into it that I realized it doesn’t feel like a book because IT ISN’T A BOOK. This is a performance, fixed in book form, but to be experienced as a live, loud, chaotic, cacophonous, shrieking, whispering temporal experience, of which you finally realize each moment of apparent chaos was carefully crafted for intentional impact. It is an aggregate of script and stage, poem and public performance, film and fluidity. 

Because it is fixed in book form, you can do as one often does with poetry books: flip through and wait for the odd elegant or quirky phrase to catch your eye, and read that page. Trust me, it is chock full of little gems to catch your eye. My copy is stuffed with torn shreds of scrap paper marking places I want to come back to revisit. The pages I’ve marked have phrases like:

“Love is overexposed, an x-ray” p. 31

“blood free to bloom like peonies, like cruelty, her new plumage” p. 43

“I’d have to unknow myself in such a way as to learn that my name wasn’t the one I wanted” p. 51

“has a storm rage on its face for 14,000 years” p. 121

“The mind boiling is still only a mind.” p. 123

“Death will be simple: the safest thing I have ever sucked on.” p. 133

You could also, theoretically, treat it as a collection of short stories or scripts, and read each of the ten sections in whatever order appeals to you, as if they stand independently. They do, actually, stand independently. This is part of the magic of the work, that each section tells its own story in its own place with its own characters or actors or performers of that story, while at the same time drawing out the larger story that connects them, of the One who stands inside each of the stories, present and absent, the narrator, the author. 

The entire volume is interwoven with images, of drawings, photos, objects. They are often disturbing, sometimes violent, graphic and sexual without being sexually graphic. Each of the ten sections is elegantly structured, but in unfamiliar ways. Johanna Hedva creates their own structures and patterns from waves and repetition, echoes and openings. Some of the sections are dense and wordy; others are tense and sparse, shaped with white space. The tides of words rush in and knock you off your feet, then pull back and leave you stranded looking for the wave that just pulled away. The book is self-aware, breaking the fourth wall to discuss its own origins in trauma, in death and birth, the personal and the universal (as in of the universe, of stars and galaxies that rage and predict their own ends), of battles with the publishing industry, the need to push the baby out of the womb and out of the nest. 

I want to gobble this up. I want to nibble at this. I want to take it apart, slice the pages into strips, fling them into the air, and reconstruct them, rediscover them, weave them into new relationships. I want to hold the entire collection gently in my hands, as if it is something wounded in need of tenderness, something sacred and dangerous, something that could wound me if I am not careful how I handle it. 

You could read this book in snippets, or chunks. I am grateful that I didn’t, that I read it straight through, beating my brain against the wall of words to try to suss out the patterns, the shape, the ebb and flow, the energy rising and diving. I began reading this book four times. The first three times, I read the first line–“The only thing the patriarchy is selling that I wanted to buy is genius”–and stopped, overwhelmed with a fierce agreement, a sense that someone else had spied inside my head and articulated something inside me with a clarity of which I am myself incapable. I ached with the weight inside upon reading, “Calculate her Hyleg and Alchochoden so that the grief won’t crack you in two when she dies suddenly.” And the perfect ending. I won’t spoil it for you. Read it.  

Title: Minerva The Miscarriage of the Brain
Author: Johanna Hedva
Publisher: Sming Sming Books + WOLFMAN
Date: 2020

Editor’s Note: Image descriptions for all illustrations are included in this text. Questions about accessibility can be directed to Sming Sming Books.

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About the Reviewer

PF Anderson is an emerging technologies informationist at the University of Michigan. She is a single mom, a voracious poetry collector and reader, who also works in the area of graphic medicine and has developed a videogame. Her favorite poetry publications include works published in Calyx and The Brillantina Project; her poetry blog is occasionally highlighted in the Via Negativa “Poetry Blog Digest” collections.