By Piper J. Daniels
$16; Tarpaulin Sky Press; 128 pages
Piper J. Daniels is many things: a Columbia College Chicago graduate, a Michigan native, a queer intersectional feminist, and a professional ghostwriter. Impressive bio and city connections aside, she's a survivor, as all women are. Let's face it: Everyone who's not a straight white cis man commits a radical act by leaving the house to face a world that, more often than not, doesn't want them.
Ladies Lazarus is Daniels' stunning debut book, a collection of poetic essays on literature, suicide culture, body image and the aftermath of hometown terror. ( In addition, the essay collection has been nominated for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. ) Although Daniels tends to heavily quote and name-drop her literary heroes, almost to the point of saturation, her writing is both evocative and clear. Her queerness, her feminism, her self are present in every single syllable. When it comes to voice, hers is unmistakable, and memorable.
Anyone triggered by mentions of suicide should probably stay away from Ladies Lazarus, but those who have struggled with mental illness and self-harm could find these essays very therapeutic. The collection's title originates from Sylvia Plath's iconic poem "Lady Lazarus," which contains the lines "Dying/Is an art, like everything else./I do it exceptionally well." Plath, of course, committed suicide as a young wife and mother, and she wasn't alone: Anne Sexton and Kurt Cobain, both of whom Daniels quotes, also went early and of their own volition. In "Epistle for Suicided Mothers," Daniels pays homage to four female writers who have gone before her, including Virginia Woolf ( "[l]ike every sentence penned, your death was perfect" ) and fellow Midwesterner Sara Teasdale ( "[i]n the tub, in the warm water, your skin takes on that pinking pallor" ).
However, Ladies Lazarus doesn't focus exclusively on suicide; rather, its main thrust is the business of existing. In the collection's title essay, Daniels explores her mother's own illness, as well as what really happens in the Biblical story of Lazarus. As Daniels astutely points out, "[h]ow jesus [sic] was aware of Lazarus's illness, but waited until he'd been entombed for four days before doing anything about it." This pulling aside the curtain is a touchstone of the entire book: Daniels is intent on removing the stigma of mental illness, surviving sexual assault and dealing with one's past once and for all.
In the book's strongest essay, "The Twist," Daniels unpacks the murder of two preteen girls in her small Michigan hometownwhen Daniels was their same age. She describes the ensuing paranoia and victim-blaming, the trial and the strangely hands-off attitude her formerly overbearing parents took toward Daniels and her younger sister. "The Twist" lays it all out in Daniels' unflinching narrative: society's fascination with young murdered girls, and how it affects the actual surviving girls in the vicinity. The events Daniels writes of in this essay laid the groundwork for the adult she would become, and the picture she paints is unforgettably haunting.
Ladies Lazarus isn't just for female readers. Anyone who loves books and knows fear is an ideal match for Daniels' debut essay collection. Though reader never meets authoronly catches glimpses throughout the short 128 pagesby the final piece, they will feel like they know her.