Review by Kerry Neville
– Buffy the Vampire Slayer is deeply ingrained in both popular and academic culture (spin-offs, references, paraphernalia, and the academic journal Slayage). Josh Whedon, the series creator, has explained that he explicitly developed Buffy as a feminist revision of the horror genre, taking as its center Buffy’s fight against universal monsters: loneliness, awakening sexuality, social norms, and oppression. Indeed, Buffy, our complicated heroine, the Slayer, born once in a generation, is tasked with protecting herself from the ordinary challenges of high school and the extraordinary challenges of vampires and demons, and with saving the world. But what do we know of Buffy’s heart, a tangle of desire and rage, lust and cool appraisal? The poet Lisa Cheby offers, in her chapbook Love Lessons from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a clever, passionate schooling on the internal dark forces that are often invisible on the screen, like many of the demons who lie in wait for Buffy.
These poems are framed as “Lessons,” content juxtaposed against the usual lessons of high school (the Table of Elements, the social stratification of cliques, and the gossip focused on who has sex with whom). The chapbook opens with “Love Lesson #0 from Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Found Poem,” a foundational primer for the rest of the poems that follow, examining the intertwining concerns of love and language, of blood and poetry. The poem spoken in an italicized, omniscient voice defining the Slayer’s following love lessons, begins: “bloody poetry,/ a Spike to the Slayer’s/ healing” (#0). Poetry offering the “ecstasy of the bite,” (#0) then, is not a therapeutic medium but a dark force that rends open the sutures; the spike that Buffy thrusts into the hearts of vampires is now impaled in her own heart, perhaps by her own hand. In “Lesson #24,” the Slayer acknowledges that “love/is my gravity// keeps me gravely moving graveward…(and by grave I mean you).” The Slayer acknowledges the tension between the grounding effect of love, tying her to earth and body and lover, but, too, love’s “grave” end: the heart’s desire is violent, jealous, and not without mortal danger.
The “Lessons” examine these poles: the yearning to love and to be loved, and the understanding that love will both betray her and that she, the Slayer, will be slayed. She tells her lover and herself (in self-conscious acknowledgment), that while he is a werewolf, she will “believe/ a werewolf you are not…though you only once in a supermoon/make love and sleep-talk to me” (#319). In an aside to herself, the Slayer says, “I feel a part of me will always be/ waiting for//you/ to overthrow me” (#27). Her lover, her werewolf, her demon, is Thanatos, and she, her longing denied by her more girlish, less lush television self, might die for full-bodied love: “the fucking wanting/ the fucking waiting/the fucking fucking” (#14).
The relationship between the Slayer and her demon lover is complicated because to give herself to him is to be led to her own grave, and yet, to deny him is to deny necessary poetry and blood. The Slayer grieves, problematically, over her vanquished? absent? demon: “I’ll always remember/ the craving of not this// emptiness: how he made me feel//about me” (#76). She is part of him as he is part of her, boundaries dissolving, actions merging: “words slipped/ your lips and fell// into mine.// You say I put words/ in your mouth,/ but it was my tongue” (#29). Poetry is born in the body’s desire for the other: poetry is both word and tongue; poetry is both comingled breath and blood.
Buffy, on-screen, is the feminist heroine: with her voluptuous breasts tucked into her tank tops, she skirts the weakness of bodily desire, of giving in to longing, in favor of the strength born of fighting and killing demons. Yet, she must admit, “slayers aren’t immune to slayage/ of the heart” (#29). In the final poem, in “Lesson #1630,” having survived the war and rape, and what seems like a doomed loop of lust and love and blood and eventual slayage of her demon lover, she matter-of-factly states, “You do what the hero/ always does:// it’s time to go home, so you get in the bus and drive.” Cheby has linked the heroic with the mundane, rape with survival, surrender to the demon with conquest through his death. The Slayer drives herself home, alone once again in her victory.
Love Lessons From Buffy the Vampire Slayer
by Lisa Cheby
Dancing Girl Press & Studio, 2014, $7.00 [Paper]
Kerry Neville is the author of the short fiction collection, Necessary Lies, which won the Chandra Prize in Fiction. Her second collection, Remember to Forget Me, is forthcoming from Braddock Avenue Books. She is a regular blogger for The Huffington Post.