Agora (Gretchen Gales)

Reviewed by Michael Northen

One of the pleasures of reviewing disability poetry is that the genre spreads such a wide umbrella that new perspectives are always trying it on for size. That is the case with Gretchen Gales’s debut poetry book, Agora. As the title implies, the subject is agoraphobia. Complementing Gales’s poems are black and white photographs by Christine Stoppard. Each poem is matched with an image.

Agora is essentially a bildungsroman. A quiet country girl goes to the evil city. It is Gales’s casting of this trope in terms of agoraphobia that turns it from a mere rerun into an intriguing invitation. Like Sister Carrie, the author feels drawn to leave her rural roots and eventually ends up, if not converted to urbanism, at least beginning to understand that in order to grow you have to “reroute your meaning of home.” (p. 43)

Gales’s odyssey begins in the comfort of her backyard woods where she can “travel to new places with daydreams/ and library recommendations” (p. 12) with the goal of reaching the city college that she is scheduled to attend. Almost immediately, however, her phobias kick in. Speeding in her car to avoid all of the possible dangers that her imagination projects, she is pulled over by a policeman. From then on the poems record the narrator’s fear of getting out of the car to ask for help, driving through “dangerous places to go alone,” and wondering whether the skyscrapers can provide a sort of security team to protect her. She eventually arrives at her new home with the only dangers experienced having been those her mind created. While neither true transformation nor self-acceptance have been achieved, she has gone from “believing the city was only a source of goblins” to finding that “the best breweries and art galleries are the ideal escape plan.” (p. 41)

Even after having reviewed books of disability poetry for the past fifteen years, I always try to ask myself the same question: who is this book’s intended reader? Gales seems to provide an answer to this question toward the end of her journey in the last lines of her poem “Blended”:

I’ve melted into the sidewalk cracks
with directional confidence, familiar
places for refuge, blend into a crowd
of other girls who like locally-sourced
used books and thrift art supplies, too (p. 41)

It may be that Agora will appeal to college age “girls,” particularly those who know what it is like to live with agoraphobia or similar anxiety-inducing conditions. That is not a judgment I feel I am in a position to make. It does, however, open the door to a question I feel more confident in asking: to what extent does Agora make a contribution to disability literature?

At several points in the book Gales seems to want to engage in a deeper discussion. The narrator admits to the problems that her “seedling-size amygdala” creates for her and alludes to having a phobia. In “Sheltered” she pleads guilty to the accusation “You’re so sheltered,” agreeing “Yes, I’ve been kept at the SPCA.” Beyond these few moments, though, the book appears to skim along the surface, offering personal reactions but without an interest in generating dialogue or in seeking some kind of community that might transcend her own immediate personal concerns. That is a lost opportunity since Gales has ventured into an area that to date few other poets have tried to explore.

Instead, Gales gestures at the religious implications of her journey. The first poem in the book, “Seedling,” begins:

I grew from a neighbor’s stalks
read a white fabric New Testament
under The Black Walnut tree. (p. 7)

The final poem of the book, “Enlightenment,” returns to similar language:

History of Christianity taught me
I don’t have to claim blame
for The Fall, maybe Lot’s wife
never became a pillar of salt (p. 45)

The analogy of Lot’s wife and her own immobility due to agoraphobia is an intriguing one, but, unfortunately, none of the poems between these two take advantage of the language that might be used to investigate the connection between the legacy of Christianity and mental health. Perhaps the reader is simply intended to see the author’s journey as a modern day Pilgrim’s Progress.

Chtistine Stoppard’s photographs match up well with Gales’s poems. Their literalism makes for an easy connection of style to picture and reflect the straight-forward language of the poems. Occasionally, there is a bit of an emotional disconnect as in the photograph for the poem “Sheltered,” which looks a good deal more like Eastern State Penitentiary than the SPCA, but by-in-large, the photographs provide a nice visual counterpoint to the poems.

Gretchen Gales’s Agora has very much the feel of a first effort. The literal journey from home to college aside, the book does not seem to feel completely sure where it is going. What it does accomplish, though, is what most of us need to achieve with a first book. Ferreting out those problems, Gales has set out several possibilities for herself. Is she interested in creating the emotional gravity that is necessary for a work seriously interested in exploring agoraphobia as a disabling condition? Does she want to pursue the connection of traditional Christian beliefs and agoraphobia? Would she prefer to continue with the next chapter of her bildungsroman simply concentrating on refining her skills as a poet? A nod needs to be given to Alien Buddha Press for giving Gales and Stoddard the opportunity to have the public see their work.

Title: Agora
Author: Gretchen Gales
Publisher: Alien Buddha Press
Date: 2023

Read Michael Northen’s poem and his review of Jennifer Bartlett’s book, Sustaining Air: The Life of Larry Eigner, in this issue of Wordgathering.

Back to Top of Page | Back to Book Reviews | Back to Volume 17, Issue 2 – Winter 2023-2024

About the Reviewer

Michael Northen was the facilitator of the Inglis House Poetry Workshop from 1997-2010 and the editor of Wordgathering from 2007-2019. He was also an editor (with Jennifer Bartlett and Sheila Black) of the anthology, Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability, and (with Annabelle Hayse and Sheila Black) the anthology of disability short fiction, The Right Way to Be Crippled and Naked (both from Cinco Puntos Press). Along with Camisha L. Jones, Travis Chi Wing Lau, and Naomi Ortiz, he is editing Everyplace on the Earth is Disabled, an anthology of disability poetry to be published by Northwestern University Press in 2025.