Slag is waste left over from steelmaking. But a scholarly epigraph in Leslie Anne Mcilroy's newest poetry collection, SLAG (Main Street Rag, $14), suggests a more personal parallel: "The long-term adverse effects of sexual abuse in infancy are the results of memories ... which in later years can be triggered by a host of cues that are pervasive." The notion that trauma and its life-long after-effects can be made into something meaningful becomes an aesthetic Mcilroy heartily embraces. Full of complicated emotion and desire, SLAG's 87 pages read as a work of honesty.
Mcilroy, a Carnegie Mellon grad and local copywriter, co-founded the lit mag HEArt, dedicated to social justice. On that note, SLAG doesn't pontificate, but shows her female speaker wrestling with relationships and motherhood, along with the emotional and physical fallout of abuse. While heavy themes can overwhelm, a range of moments play out in these well-developed lines.
In "Punch Buggy," Mcilroy describes a mother's rickety VW Bug in detail: "The interior was peeling, / the smell almost wet, / and the drive to Toronto / cold without heat." The tone matches a child-like speaker's dread of the cramped beater when she writes of the rusty floorboards, "I wished it would give, / let me slip out and roll / away to the berm, / that little car and all its / stupid, eager / endurance, / headed north / without me." It's an interesting metaphor for its insight and accessibility.
While several poems take place within the context of dreams, a favorite in the collection is the reflective "15 Years After The Cage," which invokes the landmark Squirrel Hill Café. Busy shifts being the provenance of stress dreams for many servers and bartenders, it was spot-on for its lucid surrealism: "... [D]eath wasn't like this. It was more like / opening the bar door at 5 a.m. to make / soup and finding your bartenders drunk / on the bar stools, a bottle of vodka / between them, tips divided, ketchup / bottles full and the cash bag delivered/ duly to the bank after close. It was more / like emptying the ashtray, pouring them / another and sending them home to sleep." It's a beautiful and haunting portrayal.
With its frequent use of figurative language and a strong voice, SLAG succeeds by letting the reader consider human complexity in weighty and insightful ways.