December 18, 2015
Ashley-Elizabeth Best: Constructing the female identity in Now You Have Many Legs to Stand On
Ottawa, Ontario, 2015
Reviewed by Robert Anderson
This is where I am, falling back
into everything I’m not. Riding
the Greyhound north of Thunder
Bay, feeding my reflection
in the window.
(Stones and Their Stories)
In Now You Have Many Legs to Stand On, 26 year-old Kingston, Ontario poet Ashley-Elizabeth Best looks back at her former self in order to gain the resilience to move forward. The poet embarks on a journey to the physical and spiritual home of her upbringing. The narrative thrust of this journey involves teenage misgivings, broken relationships, family crises, and the existential angst of a young person trying to find her way in life, driven by who she was and who she should be.
As readers would expect from Ottawa publisher Rob McLennan’s above/ground press, this chapbook is both provocative and original. Ashley-Elizabeth Best’s work focuses on the body, which would situate her work within the tradition of American and French feminist writers of the 1970s and 1980s. Using the confessional lyric, Now You Have Many Legs to Stand On primarily examines female sexuality and identity. For Best, voice gives way to the body.
In Elaine Showalter’s famous essay “Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness,” the writer emphasizes the importance of feminism discovering its own voice based on a woman’s lived experience. Showalter’s analogue with wilderness is based on the misconception that only males, like literary critics, were pioneers. According to Showalter “...in the American literary tradition the wilderness has been an exclusively masculine domain. Yet between feminist ideology and the liberal ideal of disinterestedness lies the wilderness of theory, which we too must make our home” (180). The young poet Best literally as well as symbolically finds herself in the “wilderness” in her chapbook Now You Have Many Legs to Stand On.
In the poem “The After Years,” the poet’s youth is seen as fixed and unchanging, and her true voice struggles to be heard. There’s recognition of the constraint of the female lyric in this poem. The poet writes,
I don’t know how I got here or why,
Straining to invent. This land –
Locked tribal ache, oxygen collapses
Moist in my lungs, thin skin pinches
to gooseflesh. Warring daughters
of warring daughters, the lunacy
baptized from generation to generation
The choice of the word “baptized” is associated with a more maternal voice. The mother of the poet and the writer’s relationship to Christianity becomes part of the speaker’s persona. The maternal voice supports religion and, hence, social order. The voice is also part of nature, which is often described by this poet as threatening and hostile.
In keeping with the religious iconography, associated with the voice of the mother in these poems, the body is seen as part of the fallen world. This world is full of longing and sexual desire. Best writes,
I’m so tired of my whole life revolving
around my body.
(He’s Not Out There Looking For Me)
The Christ-like imagery is evident in the next line: “He won’t rise again.” The boyfriend as savior no longer exists, but pain and existence have become synonymous. In the next line, a duality in the female voice exists:
He cost me much, but I wish he lived
to cost me more.
Experience brings knowledge but desire continues to drive the poet as the book goes on.
In “Stones and Their Stories,” the imagery of the body and the maternal voice dominate the discourse. Best says,
I’m trying to quit her memory but am
apprehended by her words, my mother’s
voice linking the synapses of my brain.
She’s reading me as I speak, prose
around my thoughts. I’m suffering
every part of her in myself.
I humble myself before the bus full
of bodies felled in awkward rest.
Here, the mother’s voice is in the poet’s “synapses.” The religious iconography of the maternal voice is shown in the word choice “suffering” and “bodies felled.” Is the “awkward rest” of bodies a reference to the unconscious mind, which rhetorically is structured like a language and by language? The poet’s previous neuroscience reference to the “synapses” could indicate so. Interestingly, in this poem, the female speaker expresses herself in poetry; the mother speaks “prose around my thoughts.” Much like the unconscious mind, poetry works on a vertical axis, the rhetorical model of metaphor.
In “Lady Oddball,” a somewhat humorous piece, the poem features long lines and reads a bit more like prose. Here, a mystical woman conjures herself into the world. The female speaker proclaims, “...the seed of my legend focuses the world.” The imagery rejects the Christianity represented by the maternal voice. Later in the poem, she again acknowledges the vulnerability of the female “I” speaking voice, who is defined by the male gaze:
with some standard attribute of stardom; I look helpless enough
to protect, courageous enough to admire and pretty enough to adore.
Best shows the power of the female voice in the lines “...give me back what was mine, I’ll eat all my misspoken words.” In the final two lines, “I’ll eat my empire/from the inside out, feel this day’s violence a victory.” From the “inside out” seems paradoxical with the image of passivity expressed before it.
There is also a curious use of italics in some of Best’s poems. I would think this strategy is used to emphasize the multiplicity of the female voice. In “This is How It Was,” italics appear in the middle of the poem to express the voice of a boyfriend or lover. (For example, “If you love me, you’ll do this.”). Often the lines convey a male voice, or a voice of authority. (“...Survival, the most deserved devastation.”) In “The Invoking,” Best employs the longest use of italics in the chapbook as the final two lines. She writes, “It swells to release a banshee wail. Strange literacies emerge from the well of its/ throat. Here it is, you were empty for something and now it is her.” This multiplicity of voices strongly incorporates the wilderness or the “other.” The primitive “banshee wail” coming from the “well of its throat” suggests an authenticity of voice and subject, one the speaker of the poem recognizes and longs for as part of her identity.
Female identity and sexuality are also marked in italics with the last line of the poem “To Kill a Queen”. At the end of the poem, Best writes,“...to walk in your own desire, almost young.” The italicized line suggests the instability of the speaking subject, who wants more than she’s capable of. The poem carefully leads up to this final line, which sets up the climatic ending. The poet rebels against who she was, her position in this wilderness, in this discourse:
In the compost of my ancestors, I begin
bullying former versions of myself, my blood undermined.
The wolf who nuzzles open the fjord of my thighs
seems too young to demand an Oath from.
Once again, female sexuality challenges the male discourse. This is a sexuality expressed without social restraint or allegiances; void is the hierarchy of marriage and childbirth.
In “A Mazing Space: Writing Canadian Women Writing,” Shirley Neuman argues that silence is no long an alternative for rebelling against the dominant discourse:
...for females as for the colonial subject, the only recourse is to
foreground one’s difference from the dominate discourse while
speaking within that discourse. (402).
Peaceful images of wildlife often represent the foregrounding of an alternative voice. For example in “Now You Have Many Legs to Stand On,” Best writes,
I vanish into sleep listening to a loon’s purling overture.
How can I muster meaning from what it said?
(Now You Have Many Legs to Stand On).
This poem is filled with images of impending danger, of “conflicted currents” and “…the not wrecked visage of the not-yet-drowned.” But the titular poem suggests this battle against male domination is clearly worth the struggle, worth the effort to “muster meaning.”
In “Selections of Me,” Best explores male anger and expresses it in terms of her body and sexuality. She writes,
Harbour the rap of his
displeasure in the bulk of
This theme is continued in the poem “Not Your Girl,” a power about female empowerment and objectification. Best says,
...Spine articulated, he tunnels
into the harbor of my belly, my
The aggressive word “tunnels” is associated with the male and contrasts the softness of the word “belly,” associated with the female. This male aggressiveness is also emphasized in the line “kisses like puncture wounds.”
In returning to the final poem in the chapbook, the final stanza shows the push-pull nature of relationships and the struggles of female autonomy. The speaker acknowledges her own submission to male domination and the effect it has on her identity. Best writes,
The Truth of my involvement metastasized into some
lurid fantasy, we can’t all justify ourselves. How do I mourn
this foul sense of myself.
Do you see how it works? Every contact leaves a trace.
(Selections of Me).
Best obviously wants her work to impact her readers. Now You Have Many Legs to Stand On is much like an intellectually complex, autobiographical confessional narrative. In the book, the female body and female sexuality inform Best’s own identity. Ashley-Elizabeth Best goes back to feminist critic Elaine Showalter’s “wilderness” but emerges with the strength and voice to move forward. This is a poet whose writing can stand on its own.
Showalter, Elaine. “Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness,” Critical Inquiry 8. University of Chicago: Winter, 1981.
Neuman, Shirley. A Mazing Space: Writing Canadian Women Writing. Ed. Shirley Neuman and Smaro Kamboureli. Edmonton: Longspoon/Newest, 1986.