Books in Review
Reviewed by Jay Ruzesky (The Malahat Review, Winter 1994)
Reviews of The Woman Downstairs by Julie Bruck, This Brighter Prison by Karen Connelly and Steam Cleaning Love by J.A. Hamilton
All three of these collections were published by Brick Books in 1993 and all were reprinted within the first year of their release. I thought a second look would be a good idea. I looked at them together, reading them for commonalities and attempting to find the prizes that the readers of the first editions had already uncovered.
I wasn’t disappointed with these collections. Each of the writers speaks sometimes with talking-to-the-baby-sitter clarity, sometimes through denser language that takes its time resounding. Look, for example, at the way each poet expresses her awareness of the ability language has to shape and reshape reality:
Perhaps this is the moment, then,
to speak of love again,
dressing her differently
J.A. Hamilton, “Paper and Ink”
My friends plan their lives in a nearby Greek restaurant:
plans subject to jobs, lovers, children, or lack of same—
most of all, this constant gnawing at who we are,
exactly what we’re supposed to be doing here.
After the meal, the wine, strong Greek coffee,
a ballpoint meanders on the paper tablecloth, variations
on the same story—each year, less embellishment.
Julie Bruck, “Who We Are Now”
My lies become historical.
I walk through strawberry fields inventing
elaborate tales of orphanages, seductions, deaths.
The land’s memory rises up through me,
turning my brain’s black soil.
Karen Connelly, “Journal without dates: from Paris to Honfleur to Caen”
Steam Cleaning Love, by J.A. Hamilton, is a passionate book. Many of the poems are fueled by a particularly female sexual fire. Articulated in a forthright way, they are honest and vulnerable. The speaker falls in love, breaks hearts, breaks her own, and takes great pleasure in the body’s capacity for sensing:
And we went on, somersaulting
our persistent luck.
How we came. We came to nourish
grafting ourselves by root,
wetting our faces
For Hamilton, the body is “an envelope” personal as a letter and capable of being opened in many ways.
Underlying the poems are the questions of how words and stories mean and what their effects are. The way that these lesbian poems fit into the category of ‘mainstream’ literature (if indeed such a category still exists) may signal a particular answer for this book: “Let Diane / tell you, using my tongue,” she says in “Rising.” These poems are not Hamilton’s confessions; they convey on a larger scale a story of lesbian life, and they do so in a way that readers outside of that experience will find familiar. Look at the way “The Proposal” speaks of the beginning of a relationship. The poem trumpets that the lovers involved are
Two women, two women. (I do,
but the kitchen table flicks
her sawhorses like garters.
Now love becomes sleight-of-hand,
a dialect of muscle and skin,
tang and fandango. We speak fluently:
we are starting to mean everything.
What happens to them, the dance in which they begin “to mean everything,” is the first steps of discovery we all take falling in love.
Love is a recurring theme in Julie Bruck’s The Woman Downstairs as well, but in these poems love is usually unrequited. The woman in “The Woman Downstairs Used To Be Beautiful” stuffs “her face / to fill in the distance between her / and the unusually thin husband who travels …” The speaker wants to believe that the woman is happy but she clearly is not.
In most of the poems in this, Bruck’s first collection, the stance is that of observer: the speaker is usually outside of the action recording events as they happen. But Bruck does not leave her speakers on the fringe. If they are observing, it is not objectively but with a desire to engage in what is going on. In “Car Alarm” the speaker watches a group of teenagers test the alarm of a Mercedes Benz as it tells them they have “stepped inside / the perimeter” and continues to watch as they vandalize the car. What began as witnessing becomes personal. The poem extends its meaning beyond anecdote when the owner of the car comes out of the bank and the speaker places herself with the owner who “looks crazily around” as if she has just heard the voice of someone
… she hasn’t seen
in years, someone with great patience, whom she may
have dreamed of last night or loved at seventeen.
“Summer on Rewind” also rises above its initially clever idea. In this poem everything is going backwards:
Sleep ends in exhaustion, figures weaving
on a narrow bed; buttons are fastened
with pleasure. They’re bright-eyed, shot
through with energy as a second man stands
between them holding a drink, indicating
one to the other. Each withdraws a hand …
The poem begins at the end of the relationship with a first glance at a couple whose “embrace lasts so long the homeless / back off.” That the poem begins with the lovers knowing one another and ends with them as strangers backing away is an interesting enough mix of love and loss, but there is another question that is raised by this process of reversal: why do we have to know each other so well to be in love?
If the poet reveals her life in other poems she wraps it in metaphor and so, like Hamilton, avoids confession, allowing her readers to enter the poems with her. In “I Was Married to an Astronaut” the astronaut’s wife speaks: “I sand like a bird, he wanted to fly.” In the husband’s absence she perfects her voice but longs for contact. High notes
… can go through the roof.
That’s when I wish the neighbours
would knock or something—I’m half-way
to the moon. They should hear this.
There is a narrative to Bruck’s poems, though the stories she is telling are short ones. Storylines serve to connect events to space and time. A trip on a train (“Daynighter”) becomes a meditation on aging where the trip is not as important as the thoughts that occur on it.
The subtitle of Karen Connelly’s second collection, A Book of Journeys, announces the narrative element in her work. Her poems ring with the exotic bells of the old world she’s travelling through. Though she writes about sex with the same forthrightness as Hamilton, Connelly’s poems are less of a tumble into the vernacular, are more relentlessly wrapped in lyrical language. A metaphor is likely to be one in a series, as in “Paris Is Not A Dream”:
Paris is not a dream
but a lie, a lace-at-the-throat duel,
a swordfight in red,
a shaken marionette
Often I thought that one precise picture would have been more effective than several mixed images. But though such tropes make Connelly’s poems denser, they work as often as not. “Spanish Lessons” benefits from the stretched comparisons:
Spain takes you in like a masked lover,
ties you up with a red scarf,
throws you the ocean’s score
and commands you to sing. …
The Mediterranean insists that the mind
is a snake in the sand,
turning its sharp tongue in venom.
Connelly’s work is most self-assured when she’s telling a story. The “Journal without dates: from Paris to Honfleur to Caen” is a mixture of lineated sections and prose poetry in which the speaker tells of a hitchhiker who is raped in return for a ride. The sense of direction that the slim narrative creates allows the language to unfold slowly. The prose section is particularly dazzling. Connelly’s use of linguistic embellishments, more restrained here, allows the poetry great presence, more focus:
In the shower I do not think of him, or what I’ll be doing later. Cleanliness is momentary, like laughter. I let the hot water convince me that life is a warm kiss all down my body, all through time. I stay under the hot spray with my eyes closed until I hear a knock at the door.
The reader is compelled through poems like this because their movement towards a destination is clearer.
Another prose poem, “A Bowl of Yellow Flowers Stains The Canvas,” tells less of a story but is still somehow more focused than other, more conventional poems:
This is where you are now. Then you turn your head away and you are somewhere else. The only truth is that there is none: it moves when we blink. The trick of seeing is not seeing everything. If you see everything and feel all you see, you unravel the wrinkles of your brain like a ball of kite string.
As much as I admire Connelly’s poetry, it was the prose poetry that grabbed my attention and made me look forward to the collection of short stories she has promised elsewhere.
I had hoped to be able to tell you a secret: what does a book of poems have to be to demand a second printing within a year of publication? But these books are as varied as they are accomplished. There are commonalities but each poet is distinctive – each has a narrative sense and a strong lyrical voice, each takes inventive risks, and each is unafraid to write about sex, love, and desire. Perhaps the reason for their reprinting is something that can’t be seen by comparing them to each other. That these collections sold out in their first year may have to do with some feeling, difficult to articulate, that they impart – that all of these works were made with great care, maybe love.