Skew-whiffing the Visible

Reviewed by Catherine Owen

Disorientation, permeability, and metamorphosis are some of the states that come to mind when reading Beautiful Children with Pet Foxes, a necessarily discombobulating text in which poems seep, rot, splinter, peel, shed, present a “sticky orange row of bobbing polyps” or, conversely, dress up embers while suitcases are “revising their wills” and a “mail order snowstorm” is returned to sender. Like a Magritte-being with fruit for its face flying over a strange wasteland à la Chagall, Jennifer LoveGrove’s poems undertake a Shklovskyan defamiliarization of the world that’s rarely comfortable or reassuring. Though “we’re all just trying to be whole,” these poems seem to present the impossibility of such a utopian project due to forces ranging from erosion to leakage to the illusion of boundaries between species, along with those dividing life from death, as dust turns into ghosts while we continue to breathe. The least potent poems are the Dream Specimen ones, possibly in homage to John Berryman’s Dream Songs but resonating somewhat flatly as a set of declarative, almost robotic impulses. The titular poem is the most potent hinge in this castle of language, with its Roethkean, Grimms’-fairy-tale mode of anaphoric lullabying where the notion of serving as “apprentice” to the world is paramount. Although Beautiful Children with Pet Foxes at times clunks into clichés—such as “caked with mud,” “fragrant bark,” “ringed with blood,” “faint shadow”—more often it soars into difficult spells that enact, as all memorable poetry must, its own deviant and delectable universe.

Linda Besner’s Feel Happier in Nine Seconds is a conglomeration of hyperactive allusions with the texture of corrugated hallucinations. Dizzy readers “nose over ghost orchids,” are guided by a politic ouroboros, and sunbathe on the head of Caesar, whirled in the vertiginous arms of Besner’s impressive vocabulary (“chthonic,” “hibernaculum,” “cotillion,” “ruffian,” “collywobbles,” “flibbertigibbet,” “demesne”) yet soothed by her severe attention to stanzaic form, as with this sharply honed syllabic couplet: “Tossing a gnarled tangerine to my ranch hand’s gyno / Gunning the roaring noosphere’s gorgeous engine.” The section on the synesthetic associations between letters and colours, based on Fisher-Price magnets, is a Bök-like exercise that only infrequently lifts into the essential poetic (“perfection’s invisible blackbird,” say) but does provide a segment of visual respite as the eye shifts amid gradually accumulating hues. More deeply satisfying in its fusion of geography and intimate surrealism is the book’s final part, “Zouviana.” Linking apparently banal, everyday actions—such as eating dinner, following a blog, and jogging—are nonsensically compelling additions of glitter bombs, scuba masks, puns like “Bay of Fundy / mentalists,” and oddities such as the “moon’s pussy.” The strongest piece may be “Self Portrait with an Armload of Parrots” in its brilliantly failed promises of binary relaxation (“Two kinds of anger: / the spoken”) and its haunting ending image that unpacks the familiar into a sigil of cynosure: “madness / can resolve into Beauty, / like when a swan is unfolded / into a lovely towel.” Feel Happier in Nine Seconds is a brainy, brawny deshabille of language that skates strange terrains unflinchingly.

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