by Catherine Bowman
Four Way Books 2006
Reviewed by Scott Hightower
Catherine Bowman’s first two books, Rock Farm and 1-800 Hot Ribs – which won the Peregrine Smith Poetry Prize and the Kate Tufts Discovery Award – map the poet’s way to her third book, the innovative Notarikon. It is worth going back to those creative and rewarding books. In both, Bowman lays out a vibrant physical and poetic territory. Her third book continues the hearty mapping, but – like a brightly painted Mexican ‘Day of the Dead’ icon – its joy is applied to passage through a patch of darker terrain.
A 10-year marriage ends and gives rise to the artistry of Notarikon. The manifold metaphor of the collection’s opening poem is a human heart unfurling like a drowsy snake from a cistern. Bowman is as careful (and revealing) with gender assignment as Elizabeth Bishop. The snake is associated with an ostensibly “female” garden, but the poem’s second movement addresses his actions:
Heading out Bandera to picnic and pick corn,
… he pulls over not to piss but to blow away
any diamondback unlucky enough to be
on the road between San Antonio and Cotulla.
Yes, there is trouble in Paradise. In Notarikon, the palisade fence of Bowman’s marriage garden comes down. She is left asking, “What is the metaphysical sum of the concrete parts when one’s marriage is over?” Similar terrain has been covered artfully in Erin Belieu’s Black Box and in the first half of Anne Marie Macari’s Ivory Cradle. Reading such a book, it is hard not to consider Elizabeth Bishop’s masterful poem of loss “One Art.” Other Bishop poems (“Florida,” “The Monument”) might also float nearby in some of Bowman’s poems:
From the nest of tumbleweed branches
he hung glass marbles and metals,
epaulettes, he said, from a ghost
army of amputees. There were mouthpieces
from musical instruments, strung sailor knots
he called pharaohs’ hearts, old shells,
the nails and combing from a lover’s lost
hair, charms, from a war bride’s necklace,
reliquaries of animal scents, a lacquered
glass he called “mother’s milk.”
The sounds, images and rhythm are fluid, even muscular. Throughout the first half of the book, there are similarly remarkable poems: one comprising a list of kisses (“1000 Kisses”), another springing from Jesus’s feet and another inspired by a transcription error (“I Want To Be Your Shoebox”).
The second half of the book is a thousand-line poem served out in ten-syllable lines, ten lines at a time: a collection of cantos, and a ghost dance to a lush life. There is a pictogram of bed springs (“the four cardinal points of our bed”), a merdog [as in mermaid] (“Our bed, / a wolf that we thought made a good watchdog”), a pair of silver lion-headed ice tongs, and one red sock in love’s drawer. But the emphasis on loss, Bowman notes, is an enterprise not without poetic risk:
Brodsky lectured, ripping the filter off
of a cigarette and pressing his chest —
The elegy has several dangers, he
said, foremost, an excuse to speak about
the self, and the piling up of details,
I admit that I’m guilty on both counts,
and alligators are biting my ass.
(Canto 8, stanza 8 )
Amid the memories of Christmas trees, diamonds, a red velvet cake and a serpentine equinox shadow in Chichen Itza, Bowman’s poems take count… and recount:
You thought sadness just came with the tenure.
Now it’s over. And I’m still listening
at the red door, trying to remember
why – looking for a portent in a bowl
of ten red steaming beets for what vanished.
(Canto 2, stanza 8 )