Staci Schoenfeld is a relatively new South Dakotan, a transplant from Florida via Kentucky who’s here to get her Ph.D. from USD. She hasn’t yet published a full-length collection, so I have less information from which to draw my sweeping generalizations in this introduction, but I’ll proceed anyway. She’s already well-lauded, though, with a 2015 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship in poetry, and rightly so; whenever I encounter a poem of hers, it feels close to the bone and yet at the same time finely crafted. A good example of that is her poem “Two Objects and a Girl” from Muzzle Magazine, which I’m choosing because it’s the first poem of hers I read, and it’s a poem that made me think, I have to know this person:
Two Objects and a Girl
by Staci R. Schoenfeld
At breakfast the girl spits out gazelle fur with every sip of tea. It clings to the walls, her saliva like glue. Gets stuck between her teeth. At night she coughs up more hairballs than the cat.
She’s all instinct and scent. Smells too much of her father. He’s been sniffing around. Her fur has come in and her ears grow long. She’s skittish. On guard.
The girl’s mother hires a dressmaker to cover her daughter’s changed form, but the woman doesn’t have patterns that fit the four-legged creature standing before her. She advises the mother to fashion a bed out of straw. Make the girl comfortable. What else can you do?
The girl knows. But her long tongue can’t wrap itself around the word flee. The other girls call her wild and the teacher leashes her to the treadmill in gym. Over and over she runs the same course, clenches her teeth against tongue and tastes blood.
One day, just like that, the girl sheds her fur. Her ears recede until they can no longer be seen, and she starts humming. Her head narrows at the top and widens at the base and when struck, sounds a hollow thunk. Inside¬—a constant drone. She walks as though travelling through liquid gone thick and viscous.
At night, when the girl’s father comes to her bed, he complains of stings.
She pedals her bike around town. Flowers bend toward her as she passes and she aches to bathe in their yellow dust. The girl is last sighted near the bus station.
The people who saw her that day swear she shimmered like a hot-road mirage. She was there and then she wasn’t and the seat of her bicycle was swathed in bees.
*Méret Oppenheim’s “Object” (a gazelle fur covered tea cup, saucer and spoon) and “La bicyclette à la selle d’abeilles” (a photograph of a bicycle seat covered with bees)
The speaker of this poem employs Surrealism not just as an ekphrasis (a poem in response to visual art), but as a way to encounter the destabilizing, disorienting experience of incest (or at least attempted incest)—the lines “Smells too much of her father. He’s been sniffing around” and “At night, when the girl’s father comes to her bed, he complains of stings” point toward the at-least-attempted molestation, and the Surrealism begins with the first line, the gazelle fur spit out with the tea. I begin to feel the fur is a metaphor for how hard it is to talk about abuse—“her long tongue can’t wrap itself around the word flee,” and the bees become a metaphor for a kind of wished-for protection from or punishment for unwanted sexual contact, as if the bees could become a kind of desired chastity belt, and as such are left as a residue on her bicycle seat, or are the animal she can become to finally be free of him. I admire the kind of imagination that can start from the photograph of a bicycle seat covered with bees and leap to the heart-wrenching cause, the pain that would make someone want those bees in her bicycle-seat area, to employ an unfortunate euphemism, or to turn into a swarm of bees from the inside out. I’m just in love with the thinking and the feeling and the music (“and when struck, / sounds a hollow thunk”) of this work, enraptured by the world it creates.