Book Review: On Being a Rat, by Chila Woychik

Their tails leave much to be desired, whipping, whipping cats and kids that get too close, want to eat them, spear them, flush them. But can you blame them—the rats or cats or kids?

I’ve never had a rat, never chased one. I chase my own tail and that’s enough. I must now make plans for the day I catch it.

Part memoir, part stream-of-consciousness ramble, part poetic reflection on “life, the universe, and everything,” and part intimate confessional, Chila Woychik’s On Being a Rat, and Other Observations resists tidy definition, but it’s a fun ride.

On Being a Rat, by Chila WoychikMs. Woychik is the elemental force behind Port Yonder Press, a small, award-winning, independent publisher with a bent toward literary fiction and a focus on quality worksmanship. Her struggles as a writer and publisher play heavily in the content of On Being a Rat, but there’s much more going on here than artistic venting. Each chapter is in some way a little song about her life, celebrating moments both mundane and sublime, covering the spectrum from sorrow to joy, despair to triumph, and ennui to wonder.

A heartfelt love for vivid imagery and metaphor underlies all these vignettes, a drive to see the world in a new way and from angles rarely explored because the mental and emotional gymnastics necessary are counter-intuitive and sometimes even painful. At times during my read, Woychik seemed to bounce along like a harried rabbit from metaphor to metaphor, linking images so rapidly I had to pause a moment or retrace my steps to ensure I hadn’t missed a connection somewhere, a lazy bloodhound discovering he’d spent too many idle afternoons snoozing on the porch.

There’s a lot of beauty here, but this is not a cozy read. It’s challenging. It bares the author’s soul. It’s often jarring and wrenching. Passages like the following linger in the mind for a long time after the first reading:

I’m dead, mortally wounded, yes, dead to you and all in this never-ending anxiety. But I’m learning my way around the dark; the stars help: a flash here, a fall there, a streak of lightning, a blinding pain.

Why is it I don’t want to leave? It’s a strange thrill—a clinging to the fog, a dampening on my arms ’til my elbows drip dew and my hair lies in tangles—but still it doesn’t feel like love to me.

On Being a Rat mingles poetry, mostly free-verse, and essays of varying length, with a bit of whimsical pencil-sketching sprinkled throughout—149 pages total. It’s divided into three parts: “The Observations,” “The Writing,” and “Nature Notes,” plus an introduction, and there’s an addendum with three letters to friends on writing topics. There’s considerable overlap among the topics, and the various pieces rarely flow together smoothly or in a perceptible pattern of time, space, or subject matter, but trying to force a work of this nature, so full of raw emotion and uninhibited introspection, into a neat package with straight edges and square corners would be an exercise in futility. I enjoyed it. Give it a read.

Purchase On Being a Rat

Chila Woychik’s bio

Port Yonder Press

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