COLLECTIONS BY REBECCA LOUDON, CHARLES JENSEN and IVY ALVAREZANNE HAINES Reviews
Radish King by Rebecca Loudon
(Ravenna Press, 2006)
Living Things by Charles Jensen
(Thorngate Road, 2006)
Mortal by Ivy Alvarez
(Red Morning Press, 2006)
The Internet may offer many time-wasting possibilities, both delicious and otherwise, but over the past couple of years it has afforded me the pleasure of discovering many new and emerging poets, most published by very small presses, who I would probably never have discovered otherwise. This review spotlights three of those poets: two with full-length books, one with an award-winning chapbook.
Radish King by Rebecca Loudon (Ravenna Press, 2006). In some ways this is an odd little book, wider than it is tall to accommodate the postcard-proportioned cover image; the funky size does more than just serve the cover art, though, as it lets you know before you even open the book that this is not going to be your standard "pretty much like any other collection" poetry book. The book’s format gets the reader’s attention, but it is up to the poetry itself to sustain that attention, and that it does, with moments like this one from “The Harmonium Machine”:
There is a lump on the back of her head.
Is it the hole she spent an entire summer
falling through? On Tuesday a magnolia
blossom wriggled in her hand, pink
and wet. It is, he assures her, a fever,
a handsome kind of sickness.
She stands in the shower with a bottle
of olive oil, combing glue from her hair,
half her head covered in zebra stripes,
no idea how they got there, wears a pill-
box hat to cover them and fabulous shoes
missing a toe, no hooves, thank God,
grateful to finally have a popular disease.
These are fever-dream poems, poems in which fire and unanticipated body parts pop in and out where you least expect them. More than once I found my expectations about voice, language, and content subverted, in a good way. Books that do this usually make me pick up a pen and start writing, and this one was no exception -- in fact, I suspect this will be one of those books that I'll turn to when I feel stuck, so it can shake the words loose for me.
Living Things by Charles Jensen (Thorngate Road, 2006). This slim little chapbook, winner of the 2006 Frank O’Hara Award, announces itself with striking cover art: a black-and-white photograph of a lifeless bird, one wing visibly withered, pinned against a wall as if in flight. Strictly speaking, these are elegiac poems; but I think of elegies as being in some way about the person being mourned, and in this chapbook, the deceased beloved is present only as body -- we don't get a strong sense of what he was like in life. From “Parlor”:
The undertaker asks, “Would you like to view the body?”
But I’ve seen you.
The air around the body is cold. You chill it.
My neck is cold. The blank coins of your eyes
have been removed.
He’s laced your fingers
incorrectly. You’re left-handed:
left thumb goes on top. A lover would know
these little details, like how
this isn’t the first time
you’ve worn lipstick.
Your hair remains immaculate.
You mannequin, you. In your new black suit.
You, mannequin, on your back.
No one’s going to love you like this—
In the absence of the beloved as character, the experience of mourning itself takes center stage and serves almost as a character, a personage. There is the necessity of dealing with the body of the deceased, the necessity of funeral and ritual, the necessity of coping with the day-to-day post-funeral mundanities (e.g. bills that continue to arrive), and there is the way mourning rings out into the world and, for a time, changes everything the mourner sees. These poems aren't about the dead, or even really about the memory of the dead. As the chapbook’s title -- and the last line of the last poem -- acknowledge, they're about the living: “You are dead. And I still have my living things to do.”
Mortal by Ivy Alvarez (Red Morning Press, 2006). These poems intertwine the matrilineal experience of breast cancer (which does often run in families) with the Demeter/Persephone story, here reconfigured as "Dee" and "Seph." The book ends up not being "about" breast cancer so much as it is an exploration of the mother/daughter bond and what is passed from one generation to the next, which is sometimes dark and bloody and painful. From “touch”:
my mother’s mother
my mother’s sister
knew its touch
my father’s father
my father’s brother
smelt its breath
breast to breast
it leapt, like lightning
from inner gnawing to outer eye
all along our blood’s line
forking like a fault line
across concrete foundations;
every window in the house
Going through chemo must be kind of like going down to the underworld and hoping that eventually you'll be permitted to emerge again. Mortal doesn’t follow either the cancer narrative or the Persephone/Demeter story in a straight line; rather, the poems pick up bits and pieces of the stories, weaving them together and picking them apart. Despite the simplicity of the language and structure of these poems, it's a complex book, and one I expect I will return to.
Anne Haines’ poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in a number of literary journals (both in print and online), including Blackbird, Calyx, Cortland Review, Pebble Lake Review, and Valparaiso Poetry Review. She lives in Bloomington, Indiana, where she works as a staff member in the Indiana University Libraries.