Amazon Solitaire

Reviewed by Jen Hutton

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Fifteen-year-old girl, you are a survivor! Womanhood—likely the first and last time you will hear this word—is already upon you. Your body heaves through the last stages of puberty. Some part of your person seems to always sting: your earlobes, your navel, your scalp dyed deep purple. You steer your awkward frame—concave, plump, or needlessly perfect—on collision courses charted by your heart. That organ has been your unsteady guide, alternately swollen or broken, exploding intermittently with the truest love or deepest hate.

 

Perhaps it will be a disappointment when you finally confront your own heart not as the glittery paper valentine you imagined it to be but as the fist of muscle it truly is, crisscrossed with veins, fatty tissue, and rubbery valves. At fifteen, I stared bleakly at a sheep’s heart (reputedly close in size and anatomy to a human’s) in my Grade 10 biology class. The heart was grey and dead, stiffened with formaldehyde. Yet dissecting that heart was not nearly as terrifying as the previous year’s revelation in our Catholic education’s obligatory (and only) sex ed lesson. With the boys playing pickup outside, our gym teacher hustled us girls into a classroom to watch a video. The video was nothing new, full of older actors squeaking through pre-teen dialogue and animations of ova floating down narrow straits. In its penultimate scene, the video depicted a woman giving birth but from the waist down. Between her legs was not the small, sterile channel we were accustomed to seeing in textbooks. Rather her vagina was stretched impossibly wide, hair and fluid along its edges, as if it were slowly expelling a football. The video enabled its desired effect (don’t get pregnant), but like seeing the sheep’s heart, we left that classroom feeling that our own skins were even more alien than we thought they were.

 

In a way, this alienation to our own biology was not so strange. It was something we were raised to accept. Our religion presented the human body as a mythic subject, vis-à-vis the immaculate conception or the transubstantiation of Christ. It taught us that our bodies were sacred and not meant to be touched. Yet my classmates and I were no worse off than the public school kids, even though the “townies” seemed so much more worldly and cocksure. Was it all the advanced sex ed they were being taught? The frank talks delivered by their more liberal, knowing parents? Who knows. We all fumbled through our teenage years; most of us made it out unscathed. But my teenage self seems not that distant from Amazon Solitaire’s fifteen-year-old narrator, raised in a Christian home and only educated herself about her body “from the diagrams printed on a Tampax box.” How much more alien would that body be to feel, as she described it, “a separate pulse in [her] belly”?

 

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Comparatively, the inner crises of adolescence (heartbreak, heartbreak, etc, etc) are not nearly as serious as what emerged from the narrator’s abdomen: a foreign mass that “made skin and hair. Teeth even. It was pushing all of my organs around.” The thing with a separate pulse was genderless and unidentifiable. It had human parts assembled in an entirely un-human way. Medicine describes the thing as either a teratoma, a rare cancerous tumor that develops differentiated limbs and organs, or possibly fetus in fetu, where the afflicted carries their unborn twin inside them. They are equally monstrous, nature at its most extreme. (In some regard the thing itself, rather than its host, is the true survivor.) In the book, the narrator’s doctor’s diagnosis was more palatable. “An egg of mine had decided to fertilize itself” was more than a glossing over of the facts. Perhaps the explanation was meant to appease a teenager going into surgery, or her worried parents. But the premise—an egg fertilizing itself, creating progeny without sperm—is even more inconceivable than the presence of a teratoma itself. While immaculate conception is a key tenet of Christian belief, in the annals of modern medicine it doesn’t exist.

 

The cover of Cox’s tiny book (Risograph-printed on white paper speckled with multicolored flakes) depicts a flat triangle, set slightly askew and colored primary blue. The shape is distilled from another abstraction: Cox’s painting titled A Woman Without A Master, 2012, which was exhibited alongside the video that animates Amazon Solitaire’s text at Commonwealth and Council earlier this year. The triangle is mute, but invokes other associations: to yield, a form seeking balance, the Holy Trinity.

 

Who is a woman without a master? Cox’s heroine is one. Post-surgery and dosing herself with morphine, she conjures more of them: the Amazons, the all-female warrior tribe of Greek myth. In the original stories (written by men), the Amazons were described as far from “womanly.” They reputedly lopped off their right breasts in order to accommodate the wide arc of their bows, and killed their male offspring to perpetuate their tribe. But Cox’s book, these women live in a self-fashioned Arcadia. In the narrator’s narcotic-induced dreams, she communed with the Amazons in their manless society, gardening, beekeeping, playing basketball, and repairing a car. Like the card game referenced by the title of her book (a variation on Solitaire where the queens are ranked as kings), in this blissful fantasy, sisters are doin’ it for themselves.

 

Amazon Solitaire seems to resurrect a second-wave discourse within a particularly pertinent frame—especially since feminism has emerged as a dirty word among some teenaged women—but emphasizes a sense of independence rather than emancipation. After her recovery, fully weaned off morphine, Cox’s narrator supplants her missing Amazons by heading to a summer sleep-a-way camp with other young women. In this new-found freedom, she dyes her hair, reads teen mags, and swims with the girls in a public fountain in her undies. In this period of self-discovery, Cox’s heroine is without a master in more than one sense: living and creating life (even in its extreme variations) without men, without a standard for which to build it.

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Akina Cox, Amazon Solitaire (Golden Spike Press, 2013)

 

Images: Cover and interior of Amazon Solitaire

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