By Joanna Acevedo
Head of a Gorgon by Raegen Pietrucha
Vegetarian Alcoholic Press
May 17, 2022
Raegen Pietrucha’s Head of a Gorgon handles the myth of Medusa, but from the point of view of the gorgon herself, and from a modern angle, with all the spitfire and verve of a modern speaker. The poems are fiery and razor-edged, each one an indictment in one way or another. Pietrucha’s speaker violently addresses her mother, her father, her abusers, one after another, without giving the reader time to breathe or process. The delivery mirrors the violence that the speaker has felt throughout her life, and it’s violently effective—poems which wake the brain up and shake it around, poems which make the reader question the way they have treated the people around them and how they themselves have been treated. Constantly formally innovative, Pietrucha has written a memorable debut which sharply reimagines this intimately recognizable myth.
Danger pervades these poems early on. We are never allowed to settle into this poetic world, but rather are unnerved and disturbed at every turn. Early in the narrative, Pietrucha reminds us:
interrupted by a hiss of memory
unzipping, something terrible swelling
in me when I thought of these bodies,
another’s I was forced to know with my own, and early. (8)
Sexual violence is a strong, powerful theme in this collection; Medusa is portrayed as a modern victim of sexual violence, and as the speaker of her own tale, she verbally attacks her abusers. Her power, which comes from her monster-hood, is clear here: she is not a victim—she is a survivor. She is able to name, confront, and face her demons; in fact, she turns them all to stone. But at the same time, at many times within the collection, she is lonely. Men, she says, are all the same. It seems Medusa must learn to trust again.
Memory is another recurring theme in this collection. Like many retellings of Greek myths, Pietrucha plays with the idea that these mythic creatures are modern humans with modern wants and desires, and we see this most clearly in a poem like “Collector,” where she says:
I don’t even remember the first thing
I ever kept. But I would’ve hid
it in my pink jewelry box, most
cluttered corner of the closet,
with the dead monarch
butterfly encased in cellophane,
and an intact sand dollar, doves
safely inside. It was a good spot
Until Mom found a pair
of my stained underwear there. (10)
This memory depicts Medusa as a young girl, and we can more clearly see her as a victim of sexual violence—similar to the poem quoted prior. We see her innocence, and Pietrucha uses this innocence to evoke sympathy. In the traditional myth, Medusa is portrayed as a monster, but in this retelling, she is the person who has been wronged. Pietrucha seamlessly weaves the two narratives together through these childhood memories, creating a new myth altogether.
Much of the language is not nearly so accessible. For much of the third section of the book, “Prevalent Storyline,” Pietrucha experiments with language in a playful manner. Her language becomes more experimental and more obscure, the poems shortening into vignettes, such as in this section of “Transfiguration”:
My back strains beneath
the weight of a black, broke divinity. Holy leaves flap
in the breeze, but their words don’t restore me.
I can’t flee this body.
My mind can’t find a peak to soar to; the weight
of memory tethers me. (32)
Again, we see the theme of memory recurring, but in a more complex way. This section of the book is somewhat hard to follow, because it seems to lack the lucidity of the previous sections. However, the language is exceptionally interesting, and this keeps the book engaging as Pietrucha takes us through this part of Medusa’s narrative, which has the reappearing themes of blood, memory, and saltwater. Although this section of the book is less immediately accessible than other sections of the book in a linear, narrative way, it still holds value as a set of poetic experiments which can be appreciated.
One of the striking things about this collection is the series of transformations that Pietrucha goes through—each poem is in a new form, and she continues to experiment as the collection moves forward, from poems which march solemnly over the page to poems in short, sparse columns. Late in the set of poems, she uses crossed-out lines to create erasure poems and italics to differentiate voices and speakers. The formal innovation keeps this collection fresh and exciting, even as the content becomes distressing and, at times, repetitive.
Head of a Gorgon is a complex, layered book with a significant amount of formal experimentation which makes it interesting, engaging, and exciting for the reader. Through these experiments, Pietrucha has created a new narrative of survivorship for victims of sexual violence as well as a new way to look at the myth of Medusa, who had, previously to Head of a Gorgon, fallen through the cracks of history as a villain. Pietrucha rehabilitates Medusa, giving a voice to sexual trauma survivors, and we are all grateful for her contribution.
Joanna Acevedo (she/they) is the Pushcart-nominated author of the poetry collection The Pathophysiology of Longing (Black Centipede Press, 2020) and the short story collection Unsaid Things (Flexible Press, 2021). Her work has been seen across the web and in print, including in Hobart Pulp, The Bookends Review, and the Write Launch. She is a Guest Editor at the Masters Review, Associate Poetry Editor at West Trade Review, Reviews Editor for the Great Lakes Review, and she received her MFA in fiction from New York University in 2021. She is supported by Creatives Rebuild New York: Guaranteed Income for Artists.