Callie Comes of Age, by Dale Champlin, reviewed by Jackie McManus

Reviewed by Jackie McManus

Callie Comes of Age by Dale Champlin

Cirque Press (August 21, 2021), 148 pp $15
ISBN #: 978-168524706-5
Available at: [email protected]

Callie Comes of Age is a haunting coming-of-age story that could fool you with its lyrical, almost casual language. Prepare your heart. It is full of a staggering anguish. When significant people die, it is a shattering experience for Callie, the young protagonist of Dale Champlin’s collection, who had already lost the three great loves of her life/and she’s just turned fifteen (“Callie Writes the Novel of Her Life”).

Grief has all the markings of a girl acting out: pornography (in this case as close as she could get to it with a Cosmos article), masturbation, promiscuity, sex with an adult, drinking, hard work, and thoughts of suicide. Six years old when she experiences the first loss, twelve with the second, and a young teen with the third: the suicide of a boy she loved, Callie is reeling. You could argue some of these things are “normal” teenager behavior. You’d be wrong. Here is Callie at twelve years old in the poem “What Happened Next”:

     I rooted around under
     the kitchen sink…
     nabbed the bottle of Jack Daniel’s,
     admired the black label, took the
     almost full bottle into the bedroom,
     and gulped down a couple of swigs.

     “10 Best Sex Tips Ever,” was the title.
     The first tip was, “masturbate
     every morning.” I missed this morning
     because of my Dad’s funeral.
     So I better get on it.

     To get off I recalled how mother’s hair
     fell past her butt…
     And I remembered the beauty
     of Diego’s slow smile.

In “A Trace of Wind,” Callie’s mother depicts her marriage that had become life-threatening and, before she could convert her new knowledge to power, she journaled the truth for Callie before she disappeared.

     The day Daniel set me
     down in his landscape,
     my first day on the range,
     I didn’t recognize the swinging
     ranch sign overhead
     as the sword of Damocles or
     the nightmare of a guillotine
     ready to chop me in half.

     I was fooled by spring–

Contrary to what our society likes to peddle, grief does not have closure. Grief comes with us; it is not left behind. Callie integrates grief into every little thing she does. We hear its quiet voice in “It’s Amazing What Leaves and You Don’t Miss It”:

     The next day Callie was stretching wire…

     Somehow a whiff of juniper–something like
     her mother’s jasmine shampoo-or a bluebird
     perched on top of a near post singing its heart out

     distracted Callie just enough that the whip-end
     of barbed wire snapped taut and dug
     into her muscle…

And then “In Her Brain Castle,”

     Callie has no sense of how she has come
     to such a pretty pass. Even now she has no idea
     of the fragility of her day-to-day condition.

     Do you remember me, Mother? Callie howls.

But there are always gifts in a story. Yours, mine. In Callie Comes of Age, Callie’s mother has gifted her with knowledge and the power that comes with a name. Whether Callie is Callie or Kali, she embraces both. The language will at turns comfort you until the story tears you apart.
In “A Reckoning,”

     Callie knows
     her existence is a gift.
     She sees herself
     there in the stream,

     a thing to be caught or cupped,
     a whirl of water in rushed fall–

                                   …Held.

Champlin employs quotes from Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, which Callie had read at least seven times. Gender role restrictions are pushed against in Bronte’s novel just as they are here, and we might be tempted to equate Callie with the heroine, Catherine. That is fair to a point but I would argue sensual gender stereotypes remain, and Callie is less sensual than sexualized and traumatized, which changes everything. Every male she came in contact with, save the boy she loved who killed himself, failed her. In “Callie Knew She Was Hot,” we hear:

     It didn’t faze her a bit
     The way boys, middle-aged men,
     And old geezers stopped dead in their tracks.

Callie even felt an ambivalence about her father, some place between anticipation and fear. Wuthering Heights is a novel caught between an old way of life and a new world. In Callie Comes Of Age, Champlin has written such a book, one accomplished poem after another, all of it complicated, nuanced, and stunning.

Tillie Olsen said, “Every woman who writes is a survivor.” Callie is the heroine of her story yet that empowerment does not happen until the end. I longed to know more. I longed for the story to continue and answer, What next? What happens to Callie?

What we do know is that Callie took the truth her mother gave her, took the deaths, murder, domestic violence, the hard work and drinking and sex, and the staggering fatigue of grief, all of it, stacked cairns, (“Her Mother Speaks”) to build anew. Truths aren’t easy.

Reviewer’s Bio:

Jackie McManus is the author of The Earthmover’s Daughter, Related to Loon: a first year teacher in Tuluksak, and the forthcoming Tell It To The Water.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top