Review of Hysterical Cake by Amy Baskin
—“Let them eat cake!” — remark attributed to Marie Antoinette
In a poem from Amy Baskin’s debut chapbook Hysterical Cake (Dancing Girl Press 2021), the speaker says, “I want to be a holy fool” (“Hidden Wholeness”). I think she has succeeded. While the poems in Hysterical Cake are thoughtful and serious, often they’re also witty or ironic. Baskin must be part human, part imp. She has an impressive ability to capture the complicated nature of being a human being without coming across as too heavy-handed. From the opening poem “Faithless” to the closing lines of “Hidden Wholeness,” this chapbook is full of clever imagery and subversive comments that make us think twice about what it means to be alive.
These are poems that have layers and nuances. For example, the title of the book Hysterical Cake is taken from the poem “Temporary,” which alludes to the speaker’s pregnancy. The word hysterical is especially apt because it originated in the word for womb. (You can see the same root in the word hysterectomy.) The term hysteria is also used for a type of mental illness that supposedly is peculiar to women, according to a psychiatric theory now discredited. And hysterical can mean excessively emotional.
In the poem “Temporary,” the speaker uses the term hysterical cake to compare a fetus in the womb to a cake being baked in a pan, an unusual, interesting metaphor. At birth, the baby is transformed into a finished cake—and exits the oven. The speaker uses the phrase “springform pan,” which makes me imagine a baby leaping or sailing out of its mother’s womb at birth:
…I felt a piece of myself—
a flat slab of hysterical cake—
form, set, bake
flop out of its springform pan. (“Temporary”)
The speaker in Hysterical Cake is also a fierce feminist—or just fierce, period. The speaker reveals:
There was once a guy who owned me
I was his doll…
the weight of me changed for him…
he hauled me to the kitchen
…propped me on a tall stool
told me to get to work
…now I am no longer for sale
for rent for lease or for a good time (“Possession Is 9/10ths of the Law”)
Sometimes the speaker’s fierceness and her compassion seem to blend, as in this line: “…For what is life if not radical kinship? If not competent at / giving, at sharing each lick and drop of cream?” (“She-Wolf”). At other times, the speaker seems almost prophetic:
The new is the old,
the alive is the dead.
We are marvelous in time.
Drink our fearlessness, lift us
up to our own mouths, sip the strength
it takes to wake up each day
and attempt to mend ourselves
in or hopelessly broken places. (“Kintsugi”)
With her unique voice and perspective on life, Amy Baskin has crafted an enthralling chapbook of poems that will leave readers laughing and thinking long after the final page has been turned. At the core, these are poems about the human experience, and this book is an exploration of emotion, thought, and action that speaks to all readers. I highly recommend Hysterical Cake by Amy Baskin to anyone looking for a witty, thoughtful chapbook of poems.