Who We Are Today: Five New Books of Poetry
Requiem for the Orchard, by Oliver de la Paz. University of Akron Press, 88 pp., $14.95.
Deepwater Vee, by Melanie Siebert. McClelland & Stewart, 96 pp., $18.95.
Looking for the Gulf Motel, by Richard Blanco. University of Pittsburgh Press, 96 pp., $15.95.
Paper Anniversary, by Bobby C. Rogers. University of Pittsburgh Press, 88 pp., $14.95.
Paradise, Indiana, by Bruce Snider. LSU Press, 72 pp., $17.95.
The notion of the self has been under interrogation by theorists for close to fifty years now, as post-modern ideas about how discourse shapes our realities and identities have moved to the center of the conversation about the individual. Whether there is an "individual" beyond the obvious human person inside his or her envelope of skin has now become one of the central questions of contemporary literary art, so fundamental to what we recognize as poetry in the English language that the collagist, dissociative, or fragmentary mode of constructing a poem has become a new formula.
And yet, the lyric tradition of a single consciousness expressing its emotional states—its hopes, dreams, desires, and frustrations—continues to show up regularly, attesting to the enduring idea that a single voice, even one that recognizes itself as an intersection of cultural discourses, can both articulate and define a unique personality. Such a persona can also present itself, even these days, as emblematic of humanity. The books below all take on this difficult and important project, and together they amplify what we can know about ourselves as Americans in the twenty-first century.
Oliver de la Paz's third book, Requiem for the Orchard, spends much of its time exploring American masculinity. Broken into two parts but tied by recurring forms and titles (such as "Requiem" and variations on "Self Portrait"), the book is a long meditation on growing up. One might think that there has been quite enough written about men, but this book shows that much remains to be said. Set in the Pacific Northwest (indicated by several references to Oregon), Requiem for the Orchard expands and complicates its central subject: the male self.
This book reads in some ways like a musical score, in that there is a melody, albeit a sad one, that returns several times in the "Requiem" poems. These double-spaced lyrics usually begin with questions, sometimes in rather long sequences, that return to the first "Requiem" in Part One, which itself describes a return:
The hours there, the spindled limbs and husks
of dead insects. The powders and the unguent
smells. What's left, now, of the orchards?
What shape and hammer? What clang of apples?
What crease of brown paper sacks with greasy sandwiches?
This combination of Blakean image and quotidian detail marks most of the book, and it sets the speaker in a space that can be read as either psychological or theological—or both. The boys—and the men they become—of these poems inhabit a complex world, both beautiful and terrifying. They are working boys, who spend their teenage years doing "shit" jobs ("Requiem," pg. 15) for "shit pay" ("Requiem," pg. 39) but who also find a hallowed space in the dirt and rot of an orchard.
It would be a mistake, however, to characterize this book as sentimental, even though the language is often lush and beautiful. Oliver de la Paz's poems are not naïve, and he recognizes the violence that often erupts in boys. "Self-Portrait as the Burning Plains of Eastern Oregon" seems to liken boyhood, as the title suggests, to wildfire:
Springtime meant that everything would burn
and so I, too, would torch my name into every picnic bench,
every combustible. A book of matches and a boy was never
an accident ...
But the poem isn't that easy, and the boy is not a metaphor. The speaker goes on quickly to say, "My name is not a fire. My name is not a story of fire. / I've got nothing in common with that element, save contempt / / for the place of my youth and a hunger for air." Childhood is an unforgettable "scald," and adulthood is filled with lingering smoke. And as for that name—the old notion that men have stable identities in their stable names is overturned in "Sticks and Stones," when the speaker of these poems admits that as a child he was "afraid" of his name because other kids ridiculed it. His memories are of his first name, which he says over and over until "Oliver, Oliver, Oliver / soon morphed into ah! liver!" Words come undone as easily as a child's sense of self, and the speaker ends by concluding that "All of it is forgery: steel to stone and wood to bone."
Firearms are, unsurprisingly, part of the narrator's experience, and in "Requiem" (pg. 24), it's clear that the men who oversee these boys don't really care how cautious they are with guns. The orchard workers "steal the pistols" kept by the owners, and though they intend only to indulge in "quick target practice," they in fact shoot rabbits and birds. What does their boss do? His response is to "drink black coffee with bourbon, / laugh, and shake off the radio static with a wave." He seems to think that the shooting makes men of his workers, but the poem ends on an image of their hands still feeling the pressure of "firing a round and the twitch of a body's last kick." Combine this with the image in "Self-Portrait with Taxidermy" of a boy trying to gut a pheasant—"An occasional bead / / clanged on my pan. My body was riddled / with buckshot"—and the notion that killing is "manly" is undone. Indiscriminate killing clearly wounds the shooter, too.
"Self-Portrait in My Mother's Shoes" adds an additional complication to Oliver de la Paz's American boy. The speaker never really explains why he tries on "the pumps, the flats" except to say that he was "completing some pattern." He certainly is afraid of his "parents [sic] arrival, / earlier than expected," but beyond being caught, this very masculine-seeming boy sounds perfectly happy to be wearing his "mother's red stilettos" for a while (even though he also asks "why the hell / did she own a pair of those?"). Eventually, he "eased out of those shoes, becoming here again," but he is left "weightless" and "dizzy" from "other people's lives blowing by."
And the reality of those other lives is, perhaps, the quality that makes Requiem for the Orchard stand out among collections about growing up male. Oliver de la Paz's narrator is able to take on various identities—manual laborer, woman in red stilettos, killer, wounded schoolboy—and allow them all a part in the making of a contemporary man. There is sexual swagger in poems like "Self-Portrait with Schlitz, a Pickup, and the Snake River," but what makes this book fresh is that de la Paz never resorts to sexist swaggering.
The later poems in the book mention the poet's son here and there, but it is not until the end of the book, in the poems "Requiem" (pg. 84) and "Self-Portrait with What Remains" that the importance of this new generation comes clear. "Requiem" asks "What then, of the orchards? What then / of the tree limbs, dark and heavy with fruit? What of the stolen /pistol and the animal deaths suffered in the heavy sun?" This poem, unlike many of the others with this title, also ends with a question: "What, then, of our youth? ... // ... learning without comprehension, / the difficult industry of men?" The question—and the larger question of how masculinity is made—can only be answered in the final poem: "what remains are my son's outstretched arms / wanting nothing more than to be held aloft."
Like Requiem for the Orchard, Melanie Siebert's Deepwater Vee weaves series of poems with identical titles, here "Busker," "Grandmother," "Mackenzie's Dream," and "Letter to Kitty, Never Written." This is Siebert's first book, and she does a remarkable job of using river navigation and travel (she works as a river guide in the Northwest) as a book-length controlling metaphor for the intricacies and unpredictable dangers of human relationships. The water is literally there; in fact, many of the poems are set in particular rivers or creeks and their coordinates are provided as epigraphs. The details in themselves are lovely: "Silt load / a foot thick, swamps the dryas flats, / dropped by the creek that boots a shifty ditch / through the water-moved plain, now woollen and doped" ("Hell Roaring Creek"). As the book progresses, however, these river poems begin to speak metaphorically to the other poems about family members, companions, spouses, and lovers. The various subjects branch off from each other and recombine, sometimes beautifully, like tributaries—and sometimes horrifically, like toxic drainage ditches.
The river poems feature various unnamed characters. Often written in second person, the poems seem to talk to themselves in their solitude. The book opens with a prose poem, "Current," which introduces water as both literal and figurative. The person struggles to maintain some kind of control in the grip of a force too great to overcome, and it's clear that the effort is the point—as it is throughout this book. "Current" ends this way:
You carry water from taps and don't know how to eat what's here. You haven't built your boat, still you take a bearing in the magnetic field of runoff, beam your signals to the satellites of fallen birds. And this boat grafts you to water's big-winged glide, its giveaway, the cool salve of its going-going-gone, pushing to a wavering long-held note. Inner wrist, underworld. Water on the downgrade, flowing loaded and filmed.
The second poem, "Deepwater Vee," brings in explorer Alexander Mackenzie (1764-1820), whose biography is briefly outlined in the notes. The "Kitty" poems later in the book refer to his wife, whom he apparently left behind. Mackenzie is linked in this long poem to another contemporary second-person speaker, who also endures a solitary existence to travel the rivers—though they are now polluted by acid rain. The poem suggests that the exploratory impulse is both noble and destructive: of families, of the environment, and of cultures. Mackenzie leaves his wife and the hunters who have fed him leave him "Chewing the old meat" and thinking "Where is Kitty now?" The contemporary speaker encounters "Mike" whose "uncle was the Chief, fifteen years ago, who canoed out, scooped up / four bottles of water, and took it to Ottawa to see if they would drink it." This doesn't seem like much of a statement until the final section, in which the speaker, alone now, reveals that the river is full of "overflowed sewage" and acid rain. The poem ends with the repeated line "You can't drink this water."
The shift to the "Busker" poems is sudden; there's no river, no creek, no body of water to be seen, just "Blue-bitten stars chewed into his inner cheeks. / Buttons, missing. Pockets gritty, matchbooks, / butts, quarters, a few spare parts for his sax." The poem is dedicated, "For my brother," and the prose poem that follows, also titled "Busker," makes the change in subject clearer. This brother is also on the move, also flowing, but the forces that drive him are his musical skill and his psychological disorder:
... he takes the wake behind some lady who blares hey-you and jaywalks across traffic, parking meter jumps, time's up, two straws in a pop can balanced on a ledge, two and an edge signals second chance, green is go, and the walk-lights blink: walk on, walker.
The drums hunch under a horn solo. The piano has eyeteeth. He's shedding layers, stoking the changes, handling the sweet, slow-burning keys. The pour-over phrases wash out the bar lines, the crawlspace under the lowest note bears down humid and thick, a plague of frogs in the ditches. And a breeze skiffs in, the night a good night, damn good, whiskered and licking the salt off his palms.
The "Grandmother" poems begin more than a third of the way through Deepwater Vee. Their placement reverses chronology, so that the book seems to be searching for its headwaters. The grandmother is the source of the speaker's fascination with rivers; in the second "Grandmother," she is remembered "Lifting [her] skirts, stepping into a boat, / the gunwhale [sic] tipped to your weight and sloshed back." It seems significant that the next poem, "Hell Roaring Creek," contains the sentence, "We're talking erosion / and forgiveness," because many of the poems center on cold relations among family members and forgiveness of whatever force causes a talented and troubled brother to disappear, first mentally, then physically.
The "Busker" and "Grandmother" poems finally reach confluence with the river poems in the last poem titled "Grandmother." This long prose poem begins with the old woman, who leaves her "hair loose, undone," and who "drives miles ... asylumed to back roads." She seems on the edge of sanity, and completely land-locked, but in fact there's a method to her madness. She is searching for—and finds—the missing brother:
He slings his sax on his back, says, It's you. She says, Get in. They drink whisky like it's a wind in the saplings. They shell peas. They listen to the little piano of the rain, its good right hand, its coming down ... Peace now, weather is weeping. Ride this continent out onto the dark seas.
Deepwater Vee contains two blank pages that don't really add anything to the collection, but they do divide the early poems from the "Letter to Kitty" poems that chronicle Alexander Mackenzie's loneliness and isolation and then divide the "Kitty" poems from the final short sequence of poems. In this last section, the poems are more explicit in their connections of the thematic streams, best shown in "Dusk":
... the lapping tracks, low-watt blue flames lift
what's passed—prairie grizzly, buffalo, black-footed
ferret, little curlew, small white lady's-slipper. The missing
have gone missing. Can someone at least say this?
Can I say my brother, too, is missing?
If this were a prayer, I would ask for the aspen
to quiet him like a blanket. No, ask for a wool blanket ...
So what does all this have to do with identity? Melanie Siebert has, with Deepwater Vee, created a sort of postmodern natural theology. She lays down traces of traditional nature poetry, but Siebert's nature is powerful and frightening, a force to be reckoned with. It is also internalized through metaphor. That relentless energy, impossible to tame but vulnerable to destruction, is an apt metaphor for the contemporary self. There isn't much technology in these poems, and there's not much biography. But the speaker of these poems, immersed in the rivers, their history and lore, emerges as the figure at a convergence, containing both the polluted and the pristine branches of her personal and cultural family-scape.
Richard Blanco is more explicitly concerned with identity than de la Paz or Siebert. His third book, Looking for the Gulf Motel, starts with the title poem, in which the speaker is hunting for his family's old vacation spot. This makes an appropriate introduction to a volume in which the nature of self is explored through language and cultural difference, with memories of parents, aunts, and grandparents bringing Blanco's Cuban heritage to life.
The second poem in this four-part book (the first part contains only the title poem) is titled "The Name I Wanted:" and it launches the problems that dominate the book. The speaker wants to be "Not Ricardo but Richard, because I felt / like Richard Burton—a true Anglo-Saxon" (which is mildly ironic because Burton was proudly Welsh). The boy equates the whiteness of "Richard" with being "wholesome" and "American." As "Ricardo," he has been saddled with the nicknames "El Negrito—Little Black Boy" because of his skin color and "El Gallegito—the Little Galician." His aunt says that, having been born in Spain, he is "not a hundred percent Cuban." The boy finally makes up a name for himself:
Ricardo De Jesús Blanco, I dub thee myself
Sir Richard Jesus White
defender of my own country, protector
of my wishes, conquerer of mirrors, sovereign
of my imagination—a name for my name.
This poem uses a common enough strategy—a painful set of anecdotes—to say something about the difficulty of American identity. What makes Blanco's book different is the way the poems insist upon language's ability to construct the self as the boy and then the man fights to control the discourses available to him. This book could have had as a subtitle something like "The Translated Self," because the poems dramatize, over and over, the impossibility of knowing and making a self in America without learning to carry words across divisions.
The book's second section is mostly devoted to the problems of ethnicity. Watching the Miss America Pageant in "Betting on America," the family fails to pick the winner, Miss Ohio:
Gloves up to her elbows, velvet down
to her feet, crying diamonds into her bouquet,
the queen of our country, our land of the free,
amid the purple mountains of her majesty
floating across the stage, our living room ...
It turns out that no one even knows where Ohio is, but the boy doesn't care. He's obsessed with anything that is identified as "American," even the bland middle-class home in "Tía Margarita Johnson's House in Hollywood": "the house on a cul-de-sac of polite americanos ... Johnson instead of Goméz, not my tía but my aunt." Everything from "Jingle Bells" to The Brady Bunch delights him, and he witnesses his aunt's translation into white America. The house inhabits him as he has inhabited it:
the house that spoke English, the house where I wasn't Cuban anymore, the house without a revolución, the house in one country, not two, the house that disappeared when she moved to Jersey, the house we never went to again, the house I never left.
"Habla Cuba Speaking" is written in two languages, with the Spanish stanzas translated in set-off English stanzas. The form enacts the rift within the speaker, and the repeated introductory phrase, "Here you are," reinforces the split. As the poem progresses, he is "the other grandson" who doesn't "forget / your grandfather's name"; he is "the other son" who knows his mother "as a girl sweeping the dirt floor of her home"; and he is finally "native, wandering, never lost." But this comforting link to the past only occurs when he is in Cuba, and it doesn't allow him to stop translating himself into English.
Part Three is concerned largely with sexuality and gender. These poems tell a roughly chronological story of growing up to be a gay man in a traditional Cuban household. In "Afternoons as Endora," he begins to translate himself from boy to woman:
I'm a boy who hates being a boy who loves cats and paint-by-number sets. She's a witch who loves being a witch who hates mortals. Every afternoon she pops in on channel six on top of a lamp shade or a banister, and I disappear behind the locked door of my bedroom. I paint my fingernails crayon-red, wrap a towel around my head like her bouffant, tie my sheets around my chest into a chiffon muumuu just like hers ...
Endora is probably an attractive model because she can cast spells, change reality. Imagining himself as her companion, the boy joins her in turning his grandmother "into a mute so she can't scream at me: Go play outside! Don't be such a sissy! Talk like a man, will you?"
The grandmother remains, though, and in the next poem, "Queer Theory: According to My Grandmother" her voice, condemning and controlling, is marked by the refrain "I've seen you ..." What has she seen? Her list of proscribed activities seems endless:
Stop eyeing your mother's Avon catalog
Don't draw rainbows or flowers or sunsets
Stop click-clacking your sandals—
Never take a bubble bath ...
Never dance alone in your room:
And these are just a few. The point at the end is vicious enough to need no translation:
you will not look like a goddamn queer,
I've seen you ...
even if you are one.
By the end of this section, a partner named Mark appears and the poems settle into love lyrics and short narratives, and in the fourth, final section, the speaker brings together the elements of the earlier poems in recollections of family and travel which show the family aging and accepting his sexuality. His mother comes to Maine, where he lives, having traded "mangos / for ... maples," to teach him to cook; he visits his old aunts who are happy to see him, even if they can't talk about his home life. Looking for the Gulf Motel comes to a satisfying, surprisingly untroubled end, which suggests that the act of translation may be the best way to become an American now. The penultimate poem, "Place of Mind," puts the task in terms of listening for an echo, itself an odd semi-translation of one's own words. "The search for myself," the speaker states, "begins an echo / drifting away the moment I arrive." The sound of his voice drifts back, though, at the end of this lovely, memorable book: "Always ending, yet always beginning, / the search for myself ends in echo."
I sometimes wonder whether the American South is a distinct cultural region anymore, especially among academic poets who tend to move to wherever the jobs are. When I opened Bobby C. Rogers's Paper Anniversary, however, I immediately knew where I was, even though I hadn't read the blurbs or biography on the back. The first poem, "Meat and Three," opens with this: "Any excuse to knock off work. We love this joint, with its sweet tea and pepper sauce, / cornbread in a basket, plate lunch and pie." I wasn't sure what state I was in, but I knew it was well below the Mason-Dixon line.
The small-town South can still evoke that double sense of being embraced and being choked, and this book develops the idea that language in such circumstances is hard-won. The poems are long-lined and narrative, leisurely in their development, and this form reflects the slow, sometimes frustratingly patient endurance of the characters. "Arkansas Stone," for example, begins with a piece of hand-me-down wisdom—"It's the dull blade that will cut you, I was always told"—then winds through a longish anecdote about the speaker's grandfather teaching him how to sharpen knives. The boy realizes that the grandfather has accepted the fact that "these lives we're given are made mostly of waiting / and incremental wear and a life's work of standing up / against it."
That apprehension says a great deal about this speaker and this book, though his "life's work" is not farming but writing. This subject, oddly, makes for both the most and the least successful poems in the collection. The story-telling impulse, long associated with writers from the South (not always accurately), governs many of these poems, and when they're at their best, the need for beauty and words-together-makes the narratives ring with multiple meanings and attitudes. In "Accompaniment," an old widowed piano teacher becomes an emblem of this desire:Clara Dishman taught the piano lessons in my hometown. Every Tuesday,
Schaum's blue Piano Course B under my arm, I rode my bike up Church Street
and leaned it against the white clapboards of the house she'd cut into a duplex
after her husband died. This was what she did to get by, rent to young marrieds
from the Cumberland Presbyterian college and teach the notes of the staff
to the disinclined, quarter note and whole rest, this one's Middle C, hands here
at home position.
The details here, "Church Street" resonating with the "Cumberland Presbyterian college" and "hometown" with "home position," create a tone both comforting and a little claustrophobic. But the piano lessons and the lonely work of the teacher are more than that; they're part of the mental landscape of the adult man:... "Go home,"
she would tell me, "and get to work." I should have practiced harder, and most days
I can't call to mind the truths I've been taught, how a little music makes what's lost
real again, transposed from flickering memory to a few short scenes that won't go dim.
"Prooftext" claims that "No matter / what you've heard, there is little to call peaceful about these small towns. / Slowness is not peace." Much of Paper Anniversary, however, does seem pretty peaceful. The speaker cleans up his yard, sits at his desk, and goes to the grocery store. He observes and he writes. "The mornings drag on," he admits in "Gray," and the only activity that seems to relieve the boredom is reading. Or writing. The metatextual element becomes more insistent as the book progresses, and the title poem about halfway through, suddenly becomes very resonant. This is a poem about married love, houses, and yardwork, but it's also a poem that claims,... We should stop worrying
what to call things. Something will come to us, a phrase that holds
a like meaning for you as it does for me. I've found the place where the soul goes
when it is set loose from the body. I do not know the word for it.
It's an odd statement in a poem that characterizes pruning old brush as making "revisions" and in a book that is obsessed with the writerly life. I'm not sure I believe him.
But perhaps skepticism is part of the point. Many of the poems in this volume hold in tension received language and original speech. In "Newground," the speaker remembers his father using the title word to describe a controlled burn and recalls his own realization that sometimes his father "said something just to savor the sound of it, / some tired regionalism, a dying word's bended note." This sounds like the rejection of precision that ends "Paper Anniversary," and the poem ends in celebration of the father's language:. . . I know that clod and cloud were once the same word,
but there is a cache of words that were my father's and are not mine to lose or love,
the way he would toss them out the open car window into the tire whine and wind roar,
that beautiful road song I'm trying to sing for you, the last miles between here and home.
In "My Father's Whiskey," too, stories are likened to the "Baptist whiskey" the father kept stashed in a sock drawer and doled out to himself in small enough doses that the bottle lasted a year. The speaker concludes that speaking is like drinking, words like whiskey, and that it's best "not to tell it all out."
The "father" poems suggest that the self is made up of stories told or remembered from childhood and that the deepest feelings are those left unspoken or unwritten. But Paper Anniversary also alludes frequently to the act of writing poetry, to loaning books to other poets, to running into other poets in the store, to having that meat-and-three lunch with other writers. The poems often—too often—return to "the desk lamp, our work right where we left it, laid out so carefully, but still just words / darkening a page." The "writer" poems, like "Essay on Sources," want to tell everything. The speaker's thoughts, to be sure, are "secondhand, / like beams and plank siding torn from a fallen-in barn," but he's not quite sure whether this makes him a charming hick or an egghead. Either way, he's not leaving anything unsaid. A few lines down, when he says that he is "left with the words from my grandmother's mouth, / some of them as inscrutable as a line of untranslated Chaucer," that eagerness to be both readable and enigmatic mars the poem (and Chaucer really isn't that hard to read—Beowulf might have been a better choice).
I want to give Bobby C. Rogers the benefit of his own doubts, however, and whether he quoting his relatives or quoting Le Corbusier, he is completely believable when he says, "Most knowledge / is collage." And though Paper Anniversary definitely lives in the South, that collage may now be the one of the best images of American identity.
The title of Bruce Snider's second book, Paradise, Indiana, immediately appealed to me. I'm from Indiana and long made my home there. I confess, however, that I almost stopped reading after the first poem, a ghazal called "Map." First, the fifth stanza refers to "magpie's feathers in Indiana." There aren't any magpies native to Indiana. I forgave that misstep, however, because I supposed that their feathers could end up there. But then I got to this: "It's epitaph reads: Indiana." This punctuation error should have been caught by an editor, but the responsibility remains with the poet, and to have two such errors in the first poem was startling.
I sighed and went on, however, and I was eventually glad that I did, because the strengths of the book outweighed the errors. Paradise, Indiana, like Paper Anniversary and Looking for the Gulf Motel, is built upon the premise that childhood experience provides the vocabulary and syntax of adult language and that we build our later selves out of the lore, the language, and the interpretations we receive as kids. Like the other books, too, this collection refuses to blame. The condemnations and punishments given out by family members and teachers is part of the vocabulary of childhood, and the point of all these books is that the variety of models is rich enough to provide a diversity of personal choices.
The hard-scrabble rural Indiana Snider recreates resembles the Tennessee of Rogers's book. Grandparents and aunts figure largely in the speaker's boyhood, and teachers, like "Miss Jane" to whom "Planetary" is dedicated, are memorable because they offer the information students need to make larger sense of their world. Like Blanco, Snider also explores the development of sexuality among boys. For Snider, this subject is dramatized through the story of his cousin Nick, with whom he first learned about sexual attraction and who later committed suicide by asphyxiating himself in his car.
I'm not suggesting that Paradise, Indiana, any more than Looking for the Gulf Motel and Paper Anniversary, is just about how much we are like our parents. If that were their central subject, I wouldn't think these books worth discussion. We are affected by, marked by, our pasts, but the multiple discourses that make up even an ordinary Midwestern family make individual identity a more difficult task to sort out. Snider's narratives show how "reading" various personalities is the way we begin to speak ourselves. Here's an example, from "Indiana History":
Mr. Webber says: Research your family heritage.
That sonuvabitch: Grandma's voice slurred in snot and tears.
She stands against the window, swollen eye barely open over her split cheek.
Is it me who pushes Tim Franklin on the stairs?
Is it me who calls him pussy when he cries?
I take notes, memorize the answers.
At night, in the kitchen, Nick presses hard against me when no one else can hear.
Never touch a dead cat, she says.
I take the test but don't know the answers.
Nick rolls over, climbs on top: Now you be the girl.
Like the red stilettos in Blanco's book, the makeup delivered by the Avon Lady is a significant gender marker, and "The Death of the Avon Lady" reveals the impact of this intermittent visitor on the boy's imagined possibilities for a self:
As a boy, I watched you
on our sofa spreading powders
and honey soaps, your satchel
open to perfumes, lipsticks, hopes
embodied in the names:
Surrender, Sin, Always Tomorrow.
. . .
I remember how you leaned
and touched my face
and, once, you winked.
In her grave, the Avon Lady alters the landscape around her, and for the boy the "whole ridge" is now "soft and feminine, scent / of lavender, sage." For him, death now "seems different," almost beautiful.
It's an important realization, because the death of Nick, cousin and lover, never obliterates the reality of his vibrancy. The last poem in the collection, "Gutting the White-Tail," is written in present tense, and Nick "is alive." The butchering of the deer is graphic and may repel some readers, but the violence and care necessary to the job are indistinguishable—as are the sexual desire and desire for concealment in the relationship between the boys. Ending the book on this poem returns the speaker to that space of self-discovery and effectively leaves him there, balanced between boyhood and manhood and between convention and individual yearning. One of the appealing aspects of this book is the absence of poems about being a poet, becoming a poet, meeting other poets, and teaching poets and poetry. The details are, in fact, refreshingly mythic in our stream-of-culture publishing world, though Snider does not shy away from the mundane image. This is what makes Paradise, Indiana memorable. It's a hard trick to pull off these days, and Bruce Snider has succeeded.
So, who are we today? We certainly are intersections of the various discourses—historical, economic, ethnic, geographic, even sartorial—that are available to mobile, changeable restless Americans. At the same time, however, as these books all show, what it can mean to be an adult human being is shaped by the stories from our personal pasts and our collective history. We make and find metaphors to explain ourselves to ourselves, and those metaphors become who we are. We're rivers and high-heeled shoes and gravestones and apple trees, as well as men and women who struggle against convention and expectation to become individuals. It's still a valuable goal, in both poetry and life, and these writers have all led us a few steps closer to reaching it.
Sarah Kennedy is the author of the historical mystery The Altarpiece, Book One of The Cross and the Crown series from Knox Robinson Publishers, as well as seven books of poetry. A contributor editor for West Branch, she is a professor of English at Mary Baldwin College.