The Best Literary Writing About Mothers and Motherhood

Defining by Tasslyn Magnussun

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Review by Sherre Vernon

Tasslyn Magnusson’s chapbook Defining opens with “dreams of obliteration” (1) and closes with the short declarative sentence, “I speak” (22). Defining does not offer itself as a typical poetry collection. Framed by four lyric micro-poems, two in prologue, two in epilogue, Defining is an extended hermit-crab poem that defines eighteen seemingly unrelated words, in alphabetical order. Each word is offered as one or more parts of speech and provided a standard definition. In each lexicological entry, Magnusson uses Rare and Uncommon definitions, followed by example sentences with the defined word in context, to unfold the history of her childhood sexual abuse.

ASH

(verb)

Uncommon To make another pale or white, usually inflicting harm.

Examples of ASH in a sentence…

Grandfather ashed my skin with each touch of his tongue, my freckles dimming as he went. (4)

As the entries in Defining move through the alphabet, their intensity increases. Words like believe, clean and coral are replaced with rake, prey, scream and shield. Along with this progression, Magnusson reveals to us details of her abuse, her confrontation of this abuse, and the reaction of the family members that, for various reasons, were unable to keep her safe.

Though her language is not overly poetic, and her sentences are simple, Defining is a difficult book to read. Magnusson’s speaker is precise about the nature of the abuse she faced and confronts the reader with the physicality and vulnerability of a childhood overwritten and, well—defined by predation. It is the form of this book that brokers engagement. This story, presented as a poetic lexicon provides a tidy, predictable organizational structure to contain content that is uncomfortable, and at times horrifying. In using definitions as its defining structure, it asks us as readers to consider how words, and the meanings we give them, are the building blocks of our identity. It also nods wistfully to that time in childhood when ABC order and vocabulary lists are the mainstay of our intellectual tasks – a childhood this child did not experience. Most importantly, it is through this formal engagement with words that Magnussun’s speaker allows herself “To/Make/New” (21) her understanding of herself.

Tasslyn Magnussun, the author of Defining, earned her MFA in Creative Writing for Children and Young Adults at Hamline University. Her poetry has been published by Mom Egg Review, The Raw Art Review, Red Weather Literary Journal and in the anthology Upon Waking: 58 Voices from the Shadow of Abuse. Her Poem “Clean/Fly/Plum” was the 2017 winner of the Room Magazine Poetry Contest.

 

Defining by Tasslyn Magnusson
dancing girl press & studio, 2019 $7 [paper]

 


Shere Vernon has written two award-winning chapbooks: Green Ink Wings, her postmodern novella, and The Name is Perilous, a collection of spiritual poetry. She was a 2019 fellow to MVICW and previously served as the fiction editor for Fickle Muses. www.sherrevernon.com

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