BALANCING ACTS by ROCHELLE RATNERJULIE R. ENSZER Reviews
Balancing Acts by Rochelle Ratner
(Marsh Hawk Press, East Rockaway, NY, 2006)
Rochelle Ratner’s Powerful Poetic Performance
Rochelle Ratner’s newest book Balancing Acts is a collection of seventy-two prose poems that, according to Ratner, “chronicle the growth of one woman or a mythic Everywoman, from early childhood through adulthood.” Balancing Acts is another strong book by a prolific and important contemporary poet and writer.
The individual poems of Balancing Acts and the collection as a whole raise interesting questions about genre and form issues in contemporary writing. The prose poem continues to become more popular in contemporary poetry circles. Mary Oliver’s recent volumes have included prose poems and many have included the phrase “prose poems” as a part of the subtitles. Mary A. Koncel’s book, You Can Tell a Horse Anything, is a poetry book comprised completely of prose poems. In addition, there are at least two anthologies of contemporary prose poetry, Ray Gonzalez’ anthology, No Boundaries, published by Tupelo Press focusing primarily on contemporary prose poems, and the historically comprehensive anthology, Great American Prose Poems: From Poe to the Present, edited by David Lehman. Ratner’s contribution and, in fact, innovation in contemporary prose poetry is to bring a strong narrative perspective to the collection of prose poems. That is to say,while many prose poems rely on narrative within the poem itself, Ratner’s book has a narrative arc that is created through the interlinking of her prose poems.
The narrative arc of her book is not, however, entirely linear. Ratner notes in her description of the work that the book moves between one woman and a mythic Everywoman. Sometimes that move is a glissade and there is a sense that the book does hold a truthful center of a single woman, but sometimes that move is jerky and I wondered if the reach to Everywoman was compromising the narrative. Despite this, the overall narrative arc of Balancing Acts is a compelling one from start to finish.
Balancing Acts, also raises the usual questions about prose poetry, What makes a poem, a poem? and What makes prose, prose? These questions, despite their apparent simplicity, are worth reflection and renewed reflection when engaging in Ratner’s book. Ratner utilizes a pretty standard form of the prose poem in her book with each generally having between 150 and 200 words. It is perhaps for that reason that the poems which stand out as exemplary in this collection are the longer sequenced poems, particularly “The Exterminator’s Daughter,” “Food Fights I,” and “Food Fights II.” Each of these poems contain multiple parts within them. In these sustained poems, Ratner demonstrates the strength of her narrative vision and trajectory in the book.
More significantly to me in the reading of the book, however, related to questions about the lines between fiction and creative non-fiction as raised by Ratner’s text. The woman in the book is referred to in the third person; this provides a particular distance between the poet and the character and undermines the sense of reading autobiography or memoir, however, the tone and emotional intensity of some of the poems open themselves to reading as memoir or confessional poetry. In many ways, Balancing Acts could be read not as a book of prose poems, but as a novel of creative non-fiction or as fiction. Each of those options would change the reading, I would argue, and each would enhance and detract alternatively from the text. Thus, one of the achievements of this book is the way in which it challenges the conventional categories of text that we use today.
Setting these philosophical questions, while important, aside, and considering the text of Ratner’s work, which she titles, poems, there is great strength in the poems. Ratner shines in these prose poems when her imagery is tight and the conclusion revelatory. For instance in “Frozen Peas,” Ratner writes, “She always keeps at least two boxes of frozen peas in the freezer.” This reflection on peas, “little frozen green marbles,” turns into the story of a friendship, which concludes, “this was the beginning of a friendship that lasted ten years then just rolled away from her.” Similarly, in the poem “Last Week” Ratner writes, “For her last week of wife training he sends her…flowers or a plan…she can’t remember.” This poem concludes,
They held onto the card at least, kept it on its white plastic spoke and placed it in the base of the iron tavern puzzle she’s bought him years before, two hearts intertwined. The trick is to part them.
Ratner’s ability to develop an image and bring the unexpected and revelatory to the conclusion makes her strongest poems.
It is in this realm where she also demonstrates her broad tonal capacity. In the final poem of the first section, for instance, Ratner writes of house that she passed “on her way to and from grammar school. The house with the beautiful lawn. . . .” In this house was a junior high school teacher; “He was the sort of teach who romped on his large, pristine lawn.” Ratner concludes this poem,
A teacher who mowed the grass himself. Later, he would start a day camp. Later still, he would murder his family.
This creepy comment on the beautiful lawn demonstrates one of the many unexpected joys in the tonality of Ratner’s book.
Balancing Acts has many special things happening in it. The final special thing that I noticed is not about Ratner’s text but about Marsh Hawk Press. Something special is happening there. I’ve read a number of their books over the past year, many through the auspices of reviewing here at Galatea Resurrects. They have gathered a highly creative and talented group of authors and are putting out beautiful and interesting and provocative books. Huzzah, huzzah!
Julie R. Enszer is a writer and lesbian activist living in Maryland. She has previously been published in Iris: A Journal About Women, Room of One’s Own, Long Shot, the Web Del Sol Review, and the Jewish Women’s Literary Annual. You can learn more about her work at www.JulieREnszer.com.