Review: Ologies by Chelsea Biondolillo


Etchings Press, University of Indianapolis

In Ologies, four lyric essays over twenty-seven pages burst with fascination about the way “things were unmade” – in particular, animals, girls, family, relationships, and the self. And in the process of exploring that unmaking, Biondolillo experiments with form—effectively building a personal history even as she deconstructs her lifelong obsession with dissection and death.
The first essay, “Phrenology//an attempt” demonstrates Biondolillo’s ambitious formal constructions with a triptych of intelligence. The central text traces the speaker’s childhood fascination with science—particularly the dissection of animals, which becomes a central focus of the chapbook. Embedded in the central text, shaded boxes tell across pages the story of a woman who underwent surgery for breast cancer in the 1800s. The final element, footnotes, expand on the central text through quotations, by turns inspiring and terrifying, about the historical relationship between women and science.
Perhaps this is a function of the chapbook’s smaller page size or typesetting challenges, but in the essays that offer multi-faced structural elements, the lack of white space combined with several textual elements develop a sense of claustrophobia. This visual effect may or may not be intentional. In “Phrenology//an attempt,” as the speaker ages from child to adolescent, she buries her interest in science: “I learned later, through rumors and shouts and long silent looks not to mention waveforms or snakes or jellyfish. I dropped the microscope in a box and forced myself to stop announcing the names of birds on the long school bus ride home.” The suffocation and loss in these sentences is palpable, and Biondolillo is at her best when she blends scene and understated emotion.
This same quality is also on display in “Genealogy//how to skin a bird,” which alternates the process of taxidermy with the story of Biondolillo’s relationship to her mostly absent father. The restrained tone of the essay, combined with short paragraphs and white space, develops the tension between Biondolillo and her father, as well as the concentrated skill that comes with separating and then reconstructing a dead bird. It is notable that there is no apology here or elsewhere in the chapbook; rather, Biondolillo suggests that living with tension, and even embracing it, is one way to rebuild the self.
Occasionally, however, Biondolillo seems to overreach, to want to make sure that her reader knows she understands what she’s doing. For example, she says, “I am looking for a way to get at the experience of a thing, the memory of it, to better understand the meaning of it. I am expecting the process to be messy.” The impulse to explain is understandable, yet I can’t help wondering what would happen if Biondolillo allowed her readers the opportunity to realize her process for themselves. Indeed, her innovative use of form and language clearly suggest Biondolillo’s need to be “messy” as she tries for discovery. The messiness of discovery is also one of the pleasures behind the lyric essay—for both writers and readers. Including an overt hypothesis seems to mix the genre of the lab report with Biondolillo’s lyrical leanings a bit too much.
But whatever minor quibbles one might have with an aspect or two of Ologies, the last piece, “Necrology//raccoon, pronghorn, mule deer, ring-necked pheasant, fox,” dissolves those concerns. As an apology to roadkill, the piece’s subject matter had perhaps the most opportunity to fragment, build new forms, and demonstrate again the writer’s fierce ability to juxtapose ideas. Yet, “Necrology” resists that impulse. Instead, it is three sentences, each carefully constructed yet full of energy and passion. The first two long sentences, separated by white space, sing their atonement to the creatures of the subtitle: “I’m sorry for driving past and driving past … as you became less and less of what you were, as you were ground down by innumerable tires into bone, fur, and dirt, as you were picked apart by magpies and crows.” The skilled and subtle repetition of sound and phrase reinforce the speaker’s lament, while the narrow page size creates the slow yet studied effect of poetry. This is where Biondolillo’s language comes home and finds itself – in creatures and sorrow, in the simplicity of ashes and dust. The speaker, in this last lyrical moment, also finds the truth she was searching for throughout the pages, even if that truth is uncomfortable: “I would like to be the kind of person who looks away from the slumped backbone … But I’m afraid I’ll always stare.”
In the end, Biondolillo suggests without sentimentality or nostalgia that, once we come to terms with the hurts and fears and fascinations of our youngest self, in our wide-eyed innocence may also have been the self we were designed to become.

Cate Hennessey’s essays and book reviews have appeared in locations including Fourth Genre, Gettysburg Review, PANK, and the Dr. T.J. Eckleburg Review. A Pushcart Prize nominee, she teaches at West Chester University in Pennsylvania.