chap nook 4: Waite, Liening, Casey-Whiteman
the lake has no saint, Stacey Waite (Tupelo Press, 2010)
Stacey Waite’s loose mosaic of (mostly) prose poems, the lake has no saint, chronicles its speaker’s gradual and variable understanding of self and gender. The title of every poem in the collection begins with the word “when” (i.e. “when praying for gender,” “when in spring the self pity”), so although the poems describe a personal history, they take on a quality of advice gleaned from a specific past but meant for a collective future.
The first half of the chapbook is colored by its hesitant memories of childhood. In “when the chalk of androgyny,” the speaker recounts, “there was always something about the public bathroom doors, always the chalk of androgyny sticking in my throat as i’d walk towards the women’s room with my mother.” The unpleasantness of this sensation—and the speaker’s subsequent inability to urinate—is assuaged by the speaker’s mother singing, “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” It is a painful story, but it is touching. This formula is characteristic of the chapbook’s most important idea—that humiliation, confusion, and horror can be tempered by love.
The book’s latter half largely abandons childhood memories to gather around the speaker’s unnamed lover. Thematically, Waite still takes interest in the ways some relationships can alleviate the pain of others. Late in the book, the speaker addresses this passage to the lover:
then you say to me it is not your fault that your mother is lonely. it is moving into winter. long highway, your daughter asleep in the backseat. you are driving toward what’s left of ohio’s fields.
We can’t know whether they are driving toward or away from the speaker’s mother, but it’s clear the speaker’s “lover” has been absorbed by the same space in which a mother sang her diuretic rendition of a John Denver song. the lake has no saint pulls most of its strength from relationships, so when Waite’s language gets slippery, or wriggles out of perfect coherence, it is because relationships—even without the speaker’s autonomous piecing together of a gender identity—are slippery, wriggling, incoherent things.
Oblivion, More, Brad Liening (H_NGM_N Bks, 2010)
Brad Liening’s oblivion, more opens with a seemingly casual disdain for poetic language (“I can already tell this won’t end well, / struggling in the belly of a whale.”) The words are aggressive, and sometimes too self-possessed, as he writes about robots, all-consuming fire, and the apocalypse. But the opening poems are there to set up the groundwork for a well-composed cycle of poetry. The reader is slowly exposed to the speaker’s doubt and vulnerability; in “Oblivion, More,” he thinks about bravery:
I don’t know
if this means
I don’t understand
what it means
to be brave or
if there’s bigger bravery
we have yet to tap into.
Even though this poem is highly personal, it introduces a broader hope for humanity that is all but crushed out in the opening poems. There are great lines that fit into his “sci-fi is reality” apocalyptic, but also prove an undercurrent of compassion (if you loved Wall-E, you might love the line “The robot turns its face to the sun”). As the poems progress, Liening also moves toward the abstract and creates a distinct sense of unwinding. The crushing images of apocalypse that open that book are too heavy to maintain, and there is a well-directed shift to impressions and a more personal imagery. Compared to the fire and robots that open the book, the poems at the end might even be said to be sweet:
You weren’t supposed to be there
but the moon was so big
and for a second
it was like all those fish
were just waiting there to say hey.
Because of the poet’s heavy hand and heavy brow, it may at first be easy to misjudge this intelligent and human set of poems.
Lure, Jocelyn Casey-Whiteman (Poetry Society of America 2009)
The speakers of Jocelyn Casey-Whiteman’s Lure are intimately familiar with the body: how it performs and contorts, how it comes to stand for the self. Lure–Arthur Sze’s selection for the Poetry Society of America’s 2009 Chapbook series–begins as a performance: “The curtain lifts without a sound,” and the speaker asks, “Where should the eyes go first?” In “Strange Hope” and other poems, Lure’s speakers focus on the figures of typically female performer
s. She is often an artist—dancers Marie Taglioni, her protégée Emma Livry; painter Frida Kahlo—or, as with Patience Mouffett, the subject of art (“Little Miss Muffett”). But she is also another type of performer—a “Patient” whose behavior is detailed by a cold, objective observer, as in the three “Case Study” poems. (Perhaps the patient is actually Patience Mouffett, whose father tried to cure her ailments with various insects thought to have curing properties.)
Throughout Lure, human, insect and animal bodies curl up and arch over (“A mouse curled up inside of me;” “the man with the turtle/posture, each step a careful roll / of the foot”) as much as they fold sharply (“…I can fold myself / into clean origami shapes”; “she folded into herself like an envelope / when touched”). Through such careful attention to images of the body, Casey-Whiteman explores the complicated nature of appeal and attraction or the multiple facets of what it means to lure or be lured, to be a lure and to be alluring. While the poems that open and close the collection effectively entice and reward readers, those in the middle either lilt or teeter in line or language. When the leap is long or the figure ambitious, the presence of banal verbs (“to be” forms particularly) dulls its effect. Readers will prefer the start and end of Lure, where Casey-Whitman’s language is sharp, her poetic leaps as natural as the figures on which they focus.
–Roxanne Banks Malia