Poem and Puppet Hearts

Reviewed by Dale Tracy

The poems in Andrew DuBois’ wonderfully titled All the People Are Pregnant make the arrival of repeated sounds feel inevitable, a ritual appropriate for “a cursed poem” (14) or for “A bookish hateful hand” that “gets the yellow bird / And squeezes out its song” (48).  From the title poem, for example:


. . . The men with torches frightened

your horses, they were looking for the dark.

It was nowhere where they thrust their

torches; throw your arms around

The necks of horses. (12)


Or from earlier in the same poem:


Refuse collected by accident resting blown,

or having been thrown angry

From a last ditch, against an effort

of a building erected by proximity

To eternity being zoned out of repression. (11)


These excerpts are enough to demonstrate that thought in this collection propels itself rousingly from sound to sound. As one sound leads to another, surprising situations ensue, like characters who find a vampiric solution to the shortage of “wizard oil”: “Engine run with red red blood” (39). These strange situations are not distanced from reality; in fact, as one poem points out, “You can almost always say stranger things have happened / (fear inducing)” (72). With questions like “But is man not a kind of bear?” (51) and statements like “Hello, your heart must quit smoking” (73), DuBois’ poems are vibrant with doing their own thing. The title poem addresses an unknown something that fills the poems in this collection like they are the balloons and puppets they mention, a mysterious something from which the poems’ floating quotations and unanswered questions seem to emerge:


All the people are pregnant here, they

are full of something—but what

They can’t say, or how it got there

they can’t say or can’t imagine. (13)


A lyric memoir, Leanne Dunic’s One and Half of You performs a difficult mathematics of the self. Dunic’s poems expressively ask, to whom do the ghosts belong? Who should be privy to the heartbeat? How whole is one person? To the question, “Do you believe in ghosts” is the answer, “I believe in yours” (62). To the invitation, “I’ll let you punch me in the stomach if you / let me press my ear to your heart,” comes blank space and, finally, “No” (24). To the problem, “Bloodlines—we are too thin for further / dilution,” comes the response, “Half plus a half, we could deliver another . . . ” (64). But when the speaker’s lover looks for her in a dream he encounters instead her ghost, who says, “I am one / and half of you” (66). These poems might add up to one and half of the speaker, who is


. . . unable to write a word

without you in my ink.


You, a part of me

apart from me. (77)


The fractions in these poems, helped by Dunic’s use of spacing, take up the speaker’s experiences as a biracial person reflecting on the entanglements and gaps of history and memory, as when the speaker feels that “[s]omething of our history was here, but / all we knew was inherited sadness” (18). These fractions power her reflections about similarity and difference, about people who “are the same” (44), who “look alike” (53), or who are “nothing like” each other (44). Waves of twins, models, and ghosts move forcefully through this collection’s “mixed salinity” (16). With these waves, the music of each section arrives from elsewhere, repeating, guiding, or haunting readerly engagement. As the concluding poem states, “Displacement is / a pattern, not a single occurrence” (79).


Sharon McCartney’s Villa Negativa: A Memoir in Verse asks, “If you don’t write it down, / how do you know what it is?” (16). Though the label of memoir implies the closeness of speaker to poet, the speaker of the multi-sectioned “I Am Not Who I Am” puts self-identity in question as she also seeks to make a self tangible by writing it down: “To perceive something, we have to be able / to stand away from it” (17). However, the speaker cannot achieve this distance: “If the task is inward, how do I find / what is inside that will take me out of myself? // There is no outside of myself” (19). This collection’s paradoxes make its reflections feel earned. The poems reward readers not only by arriving at moments of insight but also by playing out the lines of thought, repeatedly restarting these processes of knowing and questing. Villa Negativa positions a short opening, “Pain on Waterloo Row,” as a keynote for its body of three long poems (“I Am Not Who I Am,” “Agonal and Preterminal,” and “Anorexic”). This opening features an unnamed man who may experience the pain to which the title refers or who may cause his beloved to feel this pain (or both). This poem’s third-person perspective is an unusual welcome to a memoir but fittingly reminds us, as do all of the poems in the collection, that a person takes shape among other people. The final poem, “Prayer,” as its title suggests, makes an entreaty: “Whatever death is, / please let it be quiet” (63). In a way, this poem achieves what it requests, bringing after it the quiet of the collection’s end. Ending on this formal affirmation of the poem’s goal, McCartney’s memoir in verse suggests that it successfully produces a form of self by writing it.


Bardia Sinaee’s Intruder is amply supple to encompass social commentary (“It is so hard for some men to be men / and be humans also” [59]), myth (“only I could ride around on a cloud / because I was pure of heart” [82]), menace (“Your sickness, // the violence of your existence, is parenthetical / to my delight; I rewrite it as I please” [52]), and philosophic questing (“Is this  / some sort of riddle?” [77]). These poems don’t invite a voyeuristic view of the “new ways to invade the living organism” involved in cancer treatment (1). Instead, Intruder produces complex openings, such as charming readers into an aching comfort that the poems don’t keep for themselves: “It’s like when you were younger / Someone is keeping an eye on you / It’s getting dark and someone is driving you home” (2). The sequence “Half-Life” demonstrates Sinaee’s attentiveness to the discursive conditions of pandemic life and beyond. Not reiterating but catching the tune of the times, “Half-Life” offers the recognizable while rejecting repetitions that normalize the horrific, such that readers can take both straightforwardly and ironically the counsel “let us grieve the future / we’d expected” (92). Intruder’s poems are up to the tasks they set themselves: “A poem needs // to ask big questions” (97), and these poems do. Concluding “When have I been here before” (97), this “Poem” reminds readers of the earlier one with the same title (18). Reflections on poetry’s effects—“Is that my Bic in a dissected albatross’s stomach?” (31)— run through Intruder, forming a heart for its wide-ranging, sometimes funny, sometimes disturbing, always sensitive thinking: “The human heart, with its plumbing / and catalogue of attachments, / branches off grotesquely in pursuit of love” (32). Indeed, this collection’s poetic heart pumps with all the grotesque variousness of the human heart, one that knows,


. . . If everyone

saw me how I see me,

I wouldn’t have to write

so many poems[.] (10)

This review “Poem and Puppet Hearts” originally appeared in Canadian Literature: 252 Canadian Literature (2023): 189-191.

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