by Katie Cappello
Elixir Press 2009
Reviewed by PJ Gallo
Katie Cappello’s debut, Perpetual Care, is lit in hard light and shot with a high-contrast filter. Her book arrives out of a long tradition of painting the south grotesque—wherein darks are very dark, and lights are mostly overwhelmed—all of which might be tedious and disheartening if not for the arresting importance Cappello grants her poetry’s ugliness. Still, defying the tropes of the grotesque as it applies to the American south can be impossible without the exclusion of obvious symbols, particularly in a book with such necessarily regional scope.
Cappello’s poems take place across the deep, gulf coastal south, and on the interstates and rails that connect those varying places, but they mostly take place in a New Orleans ravaged by Hurricane Katrina and in slow repair. Cappello signifies her book’s cultural and geographical locale through readymade signifiers—magnolias, bottle trees, Dixie beer, etc. —that establish both the speaker and reader as observers who notice the same glimmer of novelty in an alien landscape and bestow a mythical quality upon it. But Cappello transcends the myth of the south by decorating her poems ornately enough with image to turn her signifiers into side notes.
These poems do not escape their region, but they do wish to reorganize it a bit, so Cappello paints surreal colors over and around her more obvious evocations of the south. The effect is largely positive and reminiscent of the hypnotizing images of clowns and walruses drawn over live action dancers in Max Fleischer’s Talkartoons (see one dancing walrus here at 4:30); something familiar wears a very strange mask in these poems, but great presentation overpowers the urge to expose. One haunting image in the poem “Crescent Express” illustrates this technique, contorting what might be familiar:
This child, the size of a fist,
is covered in black grit.
I clean him off. He’s hungry.
I wrap him carefully in a clean shirt.
I’m sure there are others here—
these tired, dusty passengers—
wonder why I take such care
with such a dirty little thing—
they don’t know how long
I’ve carried him, his black head
a hole between by breasts.
The child in the first two lines of this stanza introduces one of the recurring images in Perpetual Care, a dirty baby or, extrapolated, innocence gone awry. If such images are themselves heavy-handed or obvious, they are excellently executed. The baby in this poem feels pulled directly from our stock of horrid images of childhood starvation and squalor, photographs like Kevin Carter’s 1994 Pulitzer Prize winner. The poems don’t have the same emotional heft as such a photograph, but the speaker’s mothering is a response to such brutal imagery. The stanza exemplifies the way Cappello’s poems can operate with a sporadic knowledge of what they conjure. The first poem in the collection, “Twentieth Century Genesis,” starts the book equally unsubtly, but with its obviousness Cappello turns the key to the rest of the collection. Midway through the poem, a girl gives birth to an unmistakably phallic monster:
The snake slid out, pale pink
like the insides of organs.
When she put her legs together
she counted fifty tiny razors
cutting her fifty times.
While the birth of her pink snake alludes to a violence perhaps inherent in sexual connection, it also conjures intestines or other viscera, or because at this point in the poem the girl has been impregnated by space aliens (amidst the darkness of Cappello’s universe, there is a welcome trace of dark humor), and the pink snake may simply be one of the aliens in its larval stage. Neither gender conflict nor violent space alien births are particularly fresh ideas, but from the contorted pairing of their corresponding images emerges a skin-crawling resonance, and in the obvious correlative ways, ugliness becomes as important as beauty.
With this first poem, Cappello opens the door to her world of creeping, crawling things—locusts, bats, cockroaches, silverfish, mealworms, snakes—by birthing them literally from her initial poem, and from this creation her poems develop into their sprawling, grotesque province. At times, Cappello relies too heavily on her images, and they can overshadow her poetry. In “Lament for a Wart,” one of a series of laments in the book’s final section, she begins, “When you left, a wart appeared / wrapped in pubic hair.” The vulgarity of this original image sets a precedent for the poem that is never realized. Still, these laments are some of the strongest poems in the batch. They are appropriately darkened by the helplessness her speakers feel, and they are less forthright and accusatory than we might expect a series of explicitly post-Katrina poems to be. Instead, these laments express a familiarity with what once existed and the eeriness of remembering what was never supposed to disappear.
One of the most interesting of the book’s preoccupations is travel. There is a preponderance of movement, primarily by car, that imparts her speakers’ desire for travel but also the impotence of geographical escape. Her speakers can presumably move freely around the country, but Cappello fixes them to their region. In the pairing of the aforementioned “Crescent Express” and the poem that follows, “Cabin Swimming,” she draws a subtle parallel between driving and swimming. Though “Cabin Swimming” is not explicitly about swimming, it invokes the entrapment necessary to swimming—more clearly, the necessity of water, or sweat in this poem’s case, to the existence of a swimmer. In the preceding poem “Crescent Express,” which places its speaker on the train of its title, is more explicit about the impossibility of genuine escape:
is merciless, will leave me
if I disembark—no chance
to re-board down the line.
The pairing of “Crescent Express” and “Cabin Swimming” is indicative of the rare cohesion Cappello creates even between the most disparate poems which, to be less reductive, stir forays to Coachella and the Philippines into the Creole she cooks up. Her laments are a compelling capstone to the collection, treating the irreversibility of the destruction of New Orleans with subtlety and astonishment. Her poems are collectively enchanted and haunted by tangible ghosts, but thankfully she doesn’t make the easy mistake of treating the south as America’s backwoods haunted house. She turns an ordinary gothic representation of the region into a smoky, whiskey-breathed realm full of requisite danger, but also full of magic.