The opening section of Tanya Larkin’s debut collection, My Scarlet Ways, selected by judge Denise Duhamel for the 2011 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize, sweeps us into the world of girls, but these are timeless, hell-raising girls with a kick and bite. The second poem could be read as an ars poetica of sorts: “Sisters, don’t let sisters / ride the chandelier. It’s just a Turkish tea set / with a drunken seductive chime / like the bell in the broken doll’s head / we loved to kick around.” Well, an ironic ars poetica, that is. These poems ride the chandeliers, kick the bell in the broken doll’s head, and knock you out with their precision and charm as they take us into a world of “lukewarm heiress[es]” and “Spinster Show[s]” and piñatas and doubles, a world stocked with fiercely argued parables for those wrapped in the unrest of the world.
The speakers, or perhaps we might say speaker because the voice is so consistent through the collection, pronounces, “I am not that girl off to powder / puff in the leaves thinking, love / come smother me faster….” and “I misread the word arson for person. / That is how it started….” This conflation (or perhaps it should be called a conflagration) seems to be the nature of the speaker herself. She—and yes, there seems to be no doubt that this continues to be a female speaker—is ardently fervent: “When lonely, I lie down in my hair / and say, gondola, gondola. I lie down // in my hair and displace God.” She engages with a passionate god who seems to belong in the world of early Christian visionaries, and who appears repeatedly throughout the collection
like the itty-bitty alters in this toy cathederal
where I thank God for giving me autumn
and unwrapping it so violently shaking
the knife in the air nicking the light then
hacking it in two and mincing it to bits….
Larkin shapes a god to be not only displaced, but also deceived: “One sure way of getting behind / God’s back is by making a trumpet / of some devil’s minion’s ass in a poem.” Throughout the collection, this is a speaker for whom no territory is too sacred to tackle head-on, and for whom the passion of the language wraps even the mundane in an almost religious fervor.
Like those early mystics, the speaker embraces the natural world with untempered sensuality, such as in “In the Mountains, There You Feel Free”:
Together we go lordless on a breeze
Like bells on the loose which all of a sudden
soften the silence with ghostly peals.
I run my silver down your parts.
You run your silver down mine.
The female reigns in the world of these poems, such as in “Queenright”: “She ripped the hive from the hollow / coming unhinged like the hive. / Brained it, broke it open on a tree / that had fallen across her lap.” At the same time, the female who rules sexuality toys with the world of humans and their fantasies, as in “Blue Nurse Movie,” which begins, “My little dark one, my little death / she said, nothing exists until you lick it. / I said I wanted to be licked." Larkin’s playful turns and tweaks rest on the edge of the familiar, but the music keeps it new.
But despite the boastful whimsy the speaker professes, the meter continually shows Larkin holding the reigns. This is controlled recklessness, where form tempers feeling. My Scarlet Ways is an homage to the lyric, to a tradition in which it can feel that music is the form.
For if this sounds like a book you’ve read before, with its post-riot-gyrl sensibility, I’d like to think you’re wrong. The clever musicality never stops at that precious cleverness of "that sort” of poem gone wrong: instead, here are hints of the history of the likes of Hopkins and Thomas and Hardy in the compression of music and imagery. And Coleridge’s “best words, best order” needs to be adapted to best line, best order. These lines are slick and taut but earn their keep along the way, often reminding us of the naturalness of meter when played right.
Someone searching for criticism of the collection could point out that many of the poems work in the same vein, both in terms of style and substance, but I would argue that this sort of consistency and deftness in a first collection is rather admirable. In “With Cheerful Speed,” Larkin writes, “We were spinning ourselves into a rare dessert / a delicate sugar helmet, deliriously scribbled.” Indeed, this is a rare and delirious concoction of a book in which each bite stings with a mix of longing and devouring.
Rebecca Morgan Frank’s first poetry collection is Little Murders Everywhere (Salmon Poetry 2012). She is an assistant professor at the University of Southern Mississippi and the editor of Memorious.
My Scarlet Ways
$14, ISBN: 0983368635