Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Sally van Doren's "Sex at Noon Taxes"

These are poems about the female body, sex, and sexual politics. They try to be playful and deep, but I find most of them tiring and slight. All of them are written in fourteen lines, but only in a few instances--"Proposition," "Connecticut Sonnet," "Odalisque"--does the form find its justification in the content. The language is an uneasy mixture of registers: slangy, crude, academic, lyrical, archaic. Sometimes, unintentionally funny, as in the title poem, which opens the collection. Describing sex as a gallop up a mountain, the sestet goes:

The steeds bear us upslope.
We reach the muddy cleft
between Maroon Bells
and Crested Butte, gnawing
on caribou and warmed
liver of once noble elk.
.
Maroon Bells? Crested Butte? 

The poems are organized into four numbered sections. I find the second most wearying. The poems in it have titles like "Preposition" and "Pronoun/Punctuation." "Conjunctions" begins:

Furthermore, until but
dethrones however
while nevertheless pilots
since out of that's

atmosphere . . .

This is the kind of poem a bright middle-schooler, bored during a grammar lesson, might scribble on the back of a worksheet. At times, the wordplay, combined with a strong evocation of situation, is urgent and direct, as in the opening of "Breathe When I Expire":

the here is the why of summer this sentimental hole wedged
between Paris Provence and a labored wedding

removed from the when of death and rain the where of a scream and a white face
the how of the gash the blue bone and the fall into the pillow

but, much more often, the wordplay seems decorative, even obstructive. When the poet drops the mannerism, and writes with a plain honesty, her little scenes resonate beyond their chosen confines.

Girlhood

Alone in the basement
hiding naked behind
the washing machine,
I spied on my father
looking for his ironed
shirt, watched two
repairmen work on the
furnace and heard
another flush out the 
drains.
XXXXXGirl, soundless,
pinned between the hot-
water hookup and the
AC adaptor on an ever-
lasting winter morning.

3 comments:

Rob said...

Hmmmmm. Well... you can't win them all, I suppose.

Even the last poem you quote does little for me.

Jee Leong Koh said...

The book was selected by August Kleinzahler for The Academy of American Poets' Walt Whitman Award, given for a first collection.

Rob said...

I'm a fan of Kleinzahler's poetry.

But I'm constantly amazed by some of the books that get shortlisted and even win competitions, even when good poets are involved as judges.