Book Review: Makeshift Cathedral by Peter LaBerge
The body was a central target in the turmoil of 2016. Specifically, bodies that have been marginalized due to sexual identity have witnessed rising political menaces threaten those few established legal and hard-fought human rights. In June, the world mourned Orlando’s loss of forty-nine people who were killed at a gay dance club. Poetry, as it often does, comes to embalm, if not rescue, the body in death or agony.
Peter LaBerge’s Makeshift Cathedral, a finalist for the 2016 Vinyl 45 Chapbook Contest, is concerned with those bodies. The chapbook’s Notes page shows that a number of these poems were written in the service of remembering individuals who have suffered because of their sex and gender. For instance, “Testimony (Aubade)” was penned for fifteen-year old Jadin Bell, who hanged himself after being bullied, and “Smoking Magnum, 1991,” is for Stacy Dillon, whose queerness provided a reason for his murder. LaBerge goes one step further, however, in not just creating a space for these individuals, but also, through evocative diction and linguistic dexterity, giving them back their voice. Jane Doe, who was forced into solitary confinement because of her identification as transgender, speaks in “Doe:”
My name is Jane.
Once, my father taught me
how to swim. I was
emptied into his oval
tub. Momma’s lipstick
still bleeding from my lips.
When not implicitly asking what has the body done to deserve this, LaBerge puts pressure on words that are predominantly used reductively today. The title poem “Makeshift Cathedral,” which is saturated with shame and visceral images of anguish, unfolds the words identity and queer:
Identity: the steeple beneath skin.
was the night aimed at my jaw with a fistful of angels.
This chapbook is replete with bodies who have lost their corporeal integrity. LaBerge depicts violence with a stark, unapologetic style, with words that capture the pain and never let it go. Like us, the poetic voice in “Basilica”
other bodies catch fire
in newspapers, the forest
of charred faces.
In the aforementioned example, like in other instances in this chapbook, it is suggested that bodies are makeshift cathedrals. Their physical structures catch fire and are left as ruins in the forest in the same way a church would be destroyed by flames.
Makeshift Cathedral is not just important because it commemorates these bodies by reiterating their suffering. It is necessary because the book oscillates between elegiac and celebratory. Even when the events are so tragic and the bodies have been through so much suffering, LaBerge’s poetic treatment infuses the victims with a sense of victory; even in death and in pain, the body does not turn away from its identity, from its gender, from its sex. The body in LaBerge’s chapbook does not apologize for anything that it is, and does not want to be anything that it is not.
Christos Kalli, born in Larnaca, Cyprus, is currently studying for his undergraduate degree in English Literature at the University of Glasgow. His most recent poems can be found / are forthcoming in The American Journal of Poetry, The Adroit Journal, minnesota review, Oxford Magazine, The Maine Review, Poetry City, USA, among others. He is currently a Poetry Reader for The Adroit Journal & one of the reviewers of Carillon Magazine.