Black Box

by Erin Belieu
Copper Canyon Press 2006
Reviewed by Scott Hightower


Nobody’s Monkey

belieu coverBlack Box is Erin Belieu’s third book.  In her previous books, Infanta and One Above & One Below, Belieu staked out a philosophical voice with a youthful concern: being fit for suitable company.  She also introduced the complex notion of the risk of being trapped in a cycle of replacement (Remember the 1967 British TV series “The Prisoner”?).  In both books, Belieu vacillated between the fearful valences of being inadequate and being blissfully whole and powerful beyond measure.  Kind of like playing the Lady or the Tiger…will matrimony bring no-holds-barred blissful integrity…or will it bring sorrow and grief?

Black Box is the next signpost in the journey. The collection begins with an epithalamion (a song at the bridal chamber).  The prize of the night is odd and disconcerting….an “upended bucket, chrome / trophy hiding its galaxy of holes.”  The birth of a child follows…but even here the new soul’s father is referred to as “grief’s tent-show wizard”:

I go to our Chinese takeaway,
where the place mats say I’m a snake
and you were my favorite pig, though
astrologically you were a wasting
disease and I’m the scales of justice. 

(In the Red Dress I Wear to Your Funeral, #5)

Marital infidelity is serious moral mischief.  It engenders disappointment and sorrow; it triggers bitterness and anger.  So confronted with the disappointment and sorrow of mischief/tiger, Belieu’s poetry counters much like Jean Anouilh’s double-barrel enraged Medea, sans filicide––or in reference to poetry: think John Keats’s eloquence piping through the fury of Sylvia Plath. 

Think candy box turned coffin.  While Belieu is somebody’s mother, she is nobody’s monkey!  Think poetry as retribution:

My dear, even the worst despot in his leopard-skin fez
will tell you: the truth doesn’t win, but it makes an appearance,
though it’s a foreign cavalry famous for bad timing and
half-assed horsemanship.

On the unfaithful’s imagined grave, the betrayed howls her pagan revenge and magnifies the shame of their broken state:

I am undead and sulfurous. I stink like a tornado.
I lift my scarlet tail above your grave
and let the idiot villagers take me
in torchlight
one by one by one by one…
Your widowed Messalina, my soprano
cracks the glasses on the buffet at the after party.

(In the Red Dress I Wear to Your Funeral, #2)

Belieu is not tepid.  Like Sara Nelson: “Take no prisoners, I told my warriors. They will only slow us down.”  Belieu is no Lady Macbeth; her bitter rage is always subjunctive to clear betrayal, devastating disappointment, a fundamental empathy for life and a belief in decency and fair play.

This review opened with allusions to Nelson Mandela: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”  But there is more to that quote:  “It is our light not our darkness that frightens us…. As we are liberated from our fears, our presence automatically liberates others.”

And oddly, there is Ralph Waldo Emerson:  “No evil is pure, no hell itself without its extreme satisfactions.”

Perhaps, in the end, Belieu’s Fury like her Love carries her forward.  Augustine of Hippo:  “Amore meus pondus meum eo feror quocunque feror.“ (Confessions, Book 13)  “My Love [or read, my Fury] is my burden, by it I am carried wherever I am carried.”

    But the day comes… when
the tea olive waving its arms
    over the back fence puts up

its white-flowered fuss again, arguing
        for sweetness.

(“At Last”)

Belieu is a worthwhile poet—not because she is sassy or subversive, though it is true that she is both.  Belieu’s poems are courageous, smart and artful. This book places her among the best poets writing today.  Nothing here not to love.