Remaking Poetry

Reviewed by Dancy Mason

Each of the poetry collections reviewed here strives to reconfigure, in various combinations, assumed narratives of the self, tradition, and the objectifying gaze. Where Ali Blythe’s Twoism explores a quotidian melancholy in the face of identity dissonance, Susan Holbrook’s Throaty Wipes engages in Steinian linguistic play, and Katherine Leyton’s All the Gold Hurts My Mouth provides a sustained confrontation with the male gaze.

Blythe’s Twoism appears to announce reconfiguration through its very title and cover, the title word mirroring itself in chartreuse lettering on a white, textured cardstock background. Following this lead, Blythe’s poems explore the often quietly devastating doubling of identity that occurs when we must survive and continue our lives even through crippling sadness. The melancholy of Blythe’s speakers is often contrasted or obscured by quotidian tasks performed in countless mornings or innumerable evenings, creating a further dissonance. In “Owl,” the speaker describes how “I lie on top of the hot sheet / but night air is another hot sheet,” capturing the routine tension of being a body in the world. In “I Am Not Scoring Enough Points with You,” “Another / sunny day bashes its club / against my non-mattress ear,” while “Hit” describes the unexpected nausea of hearing a popular song on the radio one too many times. Such moments fill up Twoism, rendering its speakers as both full of profound sadness and yet required to face the quiet onslaught of these external forces, the interminable normality of these dawns, midnights, and pop songs.

Love does not escape either. Many of the love poems are labelled as numbers, which seemingly dehumanizes lovers as notches on a bedpost, and yet the poems fill these lovers with the same detail and dissonance of the collection’s other poems. In “Thirteen,” the speaker laments both Thirteen’s and their own ability to communicate through “A twin sheet suspended between us,” so that again the quotidian intrudes—here between two people, rendering their love not mystical and cosmic but inchoate even in the face of something as innocuous as linen. Blythe furthers this exploration in “Change,” a poem that takes the myth of the Minotaur of Crete and transforms it into an earthily sexual, sensitive lament: “My black half-ton / My wrongly hung,” a section of the poem begins, “My sweet familiar / two-in-one.” In many ways, this depiction of the Minotaur represents the pith of Blythe’s work: humorous, sensual, and forever a hybrid, doubled self.

Holbrook’s Throaty Wipes contains a playfulness that Twoism lacks, though not at the expense of depth. Where Blythe’s “Change” revisits tradition by retelling the story of the Minotaur, much of Holbrook’s poetry directly or indirectly takes up modernism’s linguistic play—in particular Gertrude Stein and, explicitly in “You Didn’t Miss Much,” one of William Carlos Williams’ most famous poems, “This Is Just to Say.” In the poem, Holbrook presents a photocopy of a stanza of Williams’ poem, but has scratched out choice words so that it appears on the page as:

Forgive me

they were delicious

so sweet

and so cold

With ideas such as this, Holbrook manages to speak back irreverently—but not disparagingly or pretentiously—to poetic traditions, reconfiguring them rather than disposing of or merely going against them. Thus, while this playful bent of her work may at times risk becoming gimmicky and hollowed out, Holbrook manages to nuance and complicate the traditions she works with. In “You Didn’t Miss Much,” Holbrook does not merely talk back at Williams, but reconstructs a wry, sexually dissatisfied speaker; despite the crossing out, her reconstitution of the poem fills it out rather than strips it down. This interest in linguistic reconfiguration continues in “My Fellow Contranym,” which works with homonyms of opposite meanings, containing lines such as “I devoured the pitted / plums. You prefer / the pitted kind” and “I tabled my / apology. You / tabled your apology.” The result is both witty and touching, affecting a black humour about the distance between ourselves and the people we love that is nonetheless kind and understanding. Holbrook’s experiment with the series “What is Poetry,” “What is Prose,” “What Poetry Isn’t,” in which the lines of each poem are composed of anagrams of their respective titles, is somewhat less successful, for although some of the resulting lines—“throaty wipes / or what I types”—are charming, many begin to feel pat. Nonetheless, Throaty Wipes is filled with many more experiments that, instead of lapsing into self-indulgence, explore how language can reconfigure our experiences and poetic traditions alike.

All the Gold Hurts My Mouth works to reclaim female subjectivity and reconfigure a harmful male gaze that objectifies and sexualizes women’s selfhoods. Leyton’s collection is almost obsessive about this gaze, and yokes the cultural need for women to be seen and admired with the paranoia of surveillance. The poems acknowledge the potential as well as the danger of social media, and even though Leyton’s speakers admit that platforms such as Facebook and Instagram are extensions of the male gaze, they also attempt to assert their selfhoods through these media. In “Photograph,” the power of this gaze seems to control and sexualize the speaker fully: “You tell me to look into the lens / which I think of as your mouth,” she explains, continuing, “as you brush the hair from my face / tell me part your lips, / part your knees.” In this poem, the act of looking through a lens is an act of sexual domination. Yet Leyton’s speakers are not passive in this oppression; they gaze back. “I Am Riding Toward an Apocalypse and I Think It’s Mine” opens with “Watch me on my bike. / On Facebook. / On Instagram,” giving agency to the woman-as-spectacle, and the poem teeters between empowering the poster and empowering the gazer.

By the time the collection reaches “Beaut,” a later entry, the speaker is both aware of her sexuality and the vulnerability of her control over her own sexuality. She is aware of the razor-thin line between selfhood and spectacle—yet she manages to walk it. The poem opens with the speaker complaining that her lover does not want to look at her, and she wonders at “how pathetic I am / to hope for and shine in it / should I want it.” Yet, she continues, “I rarely do.” Leyton negotiates the desire to be seen and the desire to simply be without disempowering her speaker or disavowing the dangers of spectacle. The speaker affirms this at the end of the poem, arguing that “beauty should mostly be / someone making that spectacle inside of you,” drawing both beauty and spectacle back to her own selfhood.

Of the three collections, All the Gold Hurts My Mouth is both the most narrowly focused and the most nuanced, taking up different positions, dangers, and opportunities for female selfhood all while acknowledging the oppression of the male gaze. Nonetheless, all three collections use poetry beautifully in order to imagine various reconfigurations, not all ideal, but not any less poignant for their realism.

This review “Remaking Poetry” originally appeared in Meanwhile, Home. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 232 (Spring 2017): 128-130.

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