Fluid States

Barrelhouse Reviews: Fluid States by Heidi Czerwiec

Review by Maggie Warren

Czerwiec cover.jpg

Publisher: Pleiades Press

$17.95 / 108 pp 

In Fluid States, a collection of 24 essays, Heidi Czerwiec experiments with the boundaries and specifics of genre, melding poetry and prose expertly. In the first half of this collection, she explores the history of perfume, describing Chypre de Coty, a scent that “while with you, is nonetheless thinking of somewhere, somewhen else.” The second half comprises essays that combine topics like hiking, bears, Morpheus (the Greek god of dreams, the character from The Matrix, and the character from Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman), lobster mushrooms, and canning tomatoes. Czerwiec illustrates the fluidity of genre, demonstrating how writers can transcend and innovate expectations of form and subject to reveal deeper truths.

In the 16 pieces that make up the first half of the collection, Czerwiec marries expansive research on perfumes with poetic diction and form, particularly in "N°3: Iconic [1960]." She highlights important details to describe a particular perfume’s scent and legacy. Right away, Marilyn Monroe and her relationship to Chanel are introduced through an epigraph that quotes Marilyn in an interview as stating she only wears “five drops of Chanel N° 5” to bed, thus evoking a sensual image “of Marilyn…the image of herself naked as the day she was born.” The poem delves into sensory descriptions of the scent, “its formula a sort of autobiography of her convent school’s crisp, soapy aldehydes and the innocence of vanilla…the luxurious rose…and the indolic jasmine.” 

Czerwiec adds that “the scent allowed Coco to strike a balance between purity and decadence” to further embody its legacy. By using unconventional descriptions and sensory details to describe the scent, Czerwiec provides the reader with a variety of descriptions that allow them to imagine it, practically and in more abstract ways (regarding the “personality” of the perfume). Throughout her section about perfumes, Czerwiec joins research with poetic form through her use of haibun, ending each perfume essay with a haiku, such as in “N° 3: Iconic [1960]”: “collapsing into / itself - a sex supernova / self-consuming.” By incorporating haikus, she shows how two different genres (prose and poetry) can work together to create essays that are lyrical and imaginative.

In the eight essays that compose the second half, Czerwiec explores how one genre can infect another, particularly in “Consider the Lobster Mushroom.” She opens the essay with a persistent conceit: the lobster mushroom, which, “contrary to its common name, is not a mushroom but the result of a parasitic fungus having infected a host mushroom in peculiar symbiosis.” According to Czerwiec, creative nonfiction can function in a similar way: “Creative nonfiction, too, is a symbiosis of fact infecting art. Or art infecting fact.”  She explores the possibilities essays have once this symbiosis is acknowledged, discussing different approaches: “you may play the part of parasite—cloak your work, make it the appearance of another form.” She adds, referencing her essay “Bear,” “you may think you’re writing one essay, but another takes over.” “Bear” allows Czerwiec to acknowledge her marriage as “a fragile thing, too easily crushed, as if by a careless paw,” while “Consider the Lobster Mushroom” explains her process: though she thought she was writing about hiking, she discovered she was really writing about her ex.

Despite the differing topics, the collection is a cohesive whole. The essay “Morph: Lucid Dreaming” informs the content of “Bear” by further revealing the history of the marriage we already know is fragile. “She Got Sauce” further builds on these subjects, showing the romance of canning tomatoes and preparing homemade tomato sauce for her family. Canning and her descriptions of it reveal the nature of relationships as not being strictly bad or good; instead, they function fluidly. 

“Anatomy of an Outrage” stands out from the rest of the collection, both in form and topic. Czerwiec uses words like “Circulation,” “Adrenal Glands,” and “Bones” to title different sections in order to compartmentalize different aspects of her experience of calling 911 on an unmarked ROTC exercise on a college campus, which she mistook for an active shooter situation. By using bodily titles for each section, she builds a bridge between the bodily harm inherent in active shooter situations and the threat she felt to her own life and the lives of her students. Though each essay holds a strong emotion, this is the longest, most detailed essay in the collection, and it conveys the harassment Czerwiec endured from online gun and right-wing groups by using direct quotes from the harassers. Despite the strong emotion evident in this piece, Czerwiec calmly explains her thought process and experience, creating a narrative both compelling and authentic. 

In juxtaposition with the title of the collection, Fluid States, it is clear that, though the topics in the second section do not explicitly relate to each other, they embody an exploration of thought and show how involved and enlightening the process of writing can be. Across the entirety of Fluid States, Czerwiec embodies the power of genre, expressing how easy it is for an idea—be it perfume, bears, oranges, tomatoes, or lobster mushrooms—to take hold of a writer and transform a piece. Playing with genre allows Czerwiec to explore and discover through the process of writing, often resulting in work that is striking and memorable in its ingenuity. Czerwiec reminds us that our work can be fluid if we free ourselves from constraints and allow it to become what it wants to be.

Maggie Warren is a senior at the University of Central Missouri where she serves as assistant poetry editor for Pleiades Press and managing editor, poetry editor, and art director for Arcade, UCM's undergraduate literary magazine. She has work published or forthcoming in Tanka Journal, Pleiades, Empty Mirror, and Barrelhouse. You can find more of her work at magsbewrites.com, on Facebook as Maggie Warren - Author & Poet, and on Instagram @magsbewrites