Pink & Hot Pink Habitat
by Natalie Lyalin
Coconut Books 2009
Reviewed by Christine Kanownik
Behind every poem in Natalie Lyalin’s Pink & Hot Habitat, there is a questioning suggestive of a latent trauma that is simultaneously brilliant and painful. “A) Geography,” a poem written as a test you might receive during a nightmare in which you realize you aren’t wearing any pants and your teacher is a giant alligator in glasses, exposes Lyalin’s preoccupation with the horrors of adolescence. There are no questions on the test, merely absurd options, A) and B) repeated maddeningly. A few poems are almost entirely composed of rhetorical questions. “Whatever happened at prom?” and “Why don’t you birth something?” are haunting and demanding questions that I hope never to be asked.
Another poem, “No One is Brunswick Turbulon,” describes dressing up for Halloween in the most terrifying and unsettling way. It starts with an unhappy mother who “holds someone and says Cranberry Pain” and ends with two kids holding hands in gym class. Despite everything else that happens in the poem, those furtive and painful moments are the most important things to remember. Everything else is a disguise used to cover-up the truth. The speaker’s friends may be named “Clump Mudface” and “Homo Hope,” but it is only to distract from the fact that they are vulnerable teenagers.
These high-school poems make me uncomfortable, which I at first thought was a detriment to Lyalin’s poetry. After reading the poems several times, though, I now believe that they would be problematic if they didn’t make the reader uncomfortable. Pink & Hot Pink Habitat points toward a discomfort with the world and a desire to make something new, something much more extraordinary. The book works through the dark places and times in life, and it still has its demons.
There are moments, however, when Lyalin bounces too far to the edge of absurdity, as if the poem were simply a list of weird and unrelated things. Such is the case in the delightfully named, “Super Dolphin (Super Skin).” The reference to memory foam in the first line is a distracting pun and the ensuing series of images and places doesn’t form a cohesive poem. There is a “magenta outline,” a “fur feather,” and a fireman, all of which are interesting and wonderful images, but the combination proves unsatisfactory. “A hidden clue speaks through wire,” but it doesn’t speak clearly enough to put all the pieces together.
Out of Lyalin’s controlled chaos, a shadowy character emerges. His name is Otto. He works at Macy’s and is a young immigrant who drinks too much and eats lobster while wearing a bib. He is petulant, extravagant and belligerent. “Otto Frank in Macy’s” presents his life in a series of images showing Otto completing such disparate tasks as riding a wooden roller coaster and changing a flat tire. The reader begins to feel affection for this “lovely languid Otto,” but our love is generously mixed with both pity and scorn.
Suddenly we are with Otto at the moment of his conception, “before heartbeat, being human.” We see Otto post-birth but pre-personhood. Then once again we speed through images of his youth before the poem explodes. This poem, like many in the book, reverberates with brilliant life and energy. And like many poems in the collection it also reflects sadness. It shows an entire life in a strange montage that could go on repeating in a loop, and I am sure it is no accident that our protagonist’s name is a palindrome.
Lyalin’s poems are earnest and occasionally beautiful. Their charm and overwhelming intensity are remarkable. Readers find themselves inhabiting the poems and their bizarre and captivating environments, but the terrain is shaky, and nothing is what it pretends to be.