If you’ve read the back of a poetry book recently, you’ve probably learned that many contemporary poets are “reimagining the possibilities of lyric poetry,” “challenging the conventional boundaries of poetic form,” or otherwise transgressing and subverting the supposedly rigid limits of the lyric poem. This sort of rhetoric has been applied to prose poetry, to narrative poetry, and to professedly political poetry. The language of subversion has also become increasingly common in discussions of poetry that does not defy our expectations in any obvious way. Now, it is readily applied to first books of poetry as a form of high praise.
That is not to say, though, that traditional poetic form cannot be reimagined, transgressed, and blurred from within. Indeed, it is precisely the blurring of the lines of the formal lyric that makes it possible for us to see where the boundaries once were or might have been. Anne Marie Rooney is a rising presence in the world of contemporary poetry; her chapbook, The Buff, is part of The Cupboard’s pamphlet series. She has received the 2009 Iowa Review Award, the 2010 Gulf Coast Poetry Prize, and numerous other awards. Anne Marie Rooney’s debut books of poems, Spitshine, names all of the forms it will examine: the sonnet, the elegy, the pastoral, the sestina. This text does not, as lyric poetry so often does, examine its own status as poetry; instead, it pushes each poetic form past its logical limits and into the realm of what first seems to be an inseparable marriage of difficulty and raw sexuality.
For example, the "No Rewards" sestinas are six separate and radically condensed and reimagined sestinas. The second reads:
I do it, that come-to. My me was once far more.
The more I do, our Once (damn that) combs me back to
you. To take more from me, you do it, that trick: once,
and once, and me in that grey moor. The dew of me
slicks me. So once I’ll do it to you—more than that
and fat me-throe (more!)—back. Once, us two were that.
Do that to me once more.
Here, each of the six lines repeats the six words that appear in the seventh. This is a sestina on fast-forward; the repeated words double and then multiply until their meaning fades. Indeed, the poem is incredibly “difficult” if read on a line-by-line basis; the “that” and the “once” of the poem are interchangeable and unnamed acts of a couple’s giving and receiving, but their mutual referent remains ambiguous, private, and unavailable beneath the surface of the poem. The grey moor, the dew, and the "fat me-throe" are peculiar images, resonant but opaque; all that is certain and clear in this poem is in the final line of the sestina. The "No Rewards" sestinas perhaps provide no reward if you look too closely, if you use typical methods of analysis and lyric reading. Here, the poet doesn’t ask the reader to see to the poem’s core; the only way to experience these sestinas is to let them shine in their bizarre sensuality.
The poems in Spitshine often play with the notions of surface, shape, repetition, and reflectivity, both in their images and in their forms. The text’s pastorals have edges rather than parts; the heart is described as a triangle, then as a straight line. “After it” is a perfect palindrome in lines rather than letters, readable forwards and backwards from a middle line that reads, “start here.” And each of the poem’s sonnets features not only end-rhyme but, again, the thumping repetition of entire words, as in “Lake Sonnet:”
It was July. It was my birthday. I
was still drinking then. I went with the men
to a lake with no clothing on. The men
who for a year I’d loved hardly and I
walked to the water. All that love hurt my I-
can’t-say-what. My hands knew nothing but men
that year. In snow I stand out. Every man
I’ve ever seen has seen me back. My eyes
sweat from it. Though from there the summer breaks
off, it felt sharp and bright through the last hour,
like glass fired to grow before it breaks
against its own heat. It’s soft, and then it breaks,
and, seeing itself, shifts light. For our
Trouble, we were cold and wet for an hour.
This sonnet, like most of those in the book, splits into octave and sestet; two words, “I” and “men,” set up a division that is nonetheless permeable: the men see the speaker’s eyes and she sees theirs; this reflexivity is, after the sonnet’s traditional turn, compared to the transformation of glass from hardness to softness, from the malleable to the reflective, and, finally, to the shattered. We might say that this poem, like the glass that is shattered in it, nonetheless breaks open the forms of the sonnet: it strains the logic of the form, reflecting back on itself and deciding that the trouble, the trouble of softening, breaking, and seeing, is, after all, unrewarding: the titular lake, another reflective surface, has failed to forge anything and leaves the poem’s characters, like the shards of glass, indistinguishable and apart.
Another way of saying this is to say that these poems are perhaps best read with the mindset that Susan Sontag argues for in “Against Interpretation.” Rooney writes, in “Grudge Pastoral,”
My feelings are hard as a beautiful
kidney. They jiggle
the rivets. They make a romp of
this busty throng, this lacuna
of sense, this me stealing away
in the winking angle of your wale.
This book is propelled by hard, beautiful feelings: if the poems are hard in the sense of difficult, they are also made of beautiful, angular, and shining surfaces; their forte is the absence of sense, and the speaker of the poems is bawdy, elusive—the forms in which she writes do not contain an “I” to be understood and excavated, an interiority that gradually reveals itself. Instead, the poems reveal surfaces that are dense, self-reflective, and deliciously sensual; they do not demand that the reader delve into their depths. As Rooney says in the book’s title poem, “Language is hard. / It shines in your face.”
Rebecca van Laer has recently published poems in the Cimarron Review, Crab Creek Review, Denver Syntax, and elsewhere. She is currently a PhD student at Brown University, where she studies modern and contemporary American poetry.
Anne Marie Rooney
Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2012
$15.95 paperback, ISBN: 978-0-88748-550-3