Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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“Across the table, you eat obliviously, / and I watch your tongue’s // slow tango with rich food and fine wine,” reads a moment in one of these poems of infidelity and adult relationships—adult in clashing contrast to the daydreams of youth, in the sense of burdened and tangled. So “rich” and “fine,” those clichés of unconsidered menus, describe food left untasted by the narrator who, rather, watches as the mouth of her lover as it consumed such stuff, thinking to other women and what those lips and that tongue have done there, and “Then I’m crying into my napkin, / and you are dumbfounded.”
A real enough scene, if somewhat stale in the delivery: this is the story of Reluctant Mistress, one of heartache and stabs of desire stumbling into poetry. The process of coming into awareness about romance and reality is compared to tropes in horror movies, bodies in their manipulation and discarding are compared to eggshells, the feeling of love is compared to “dandelions / that invade suburban lawns / in springtime,” and the act of falling into love is like a coprolite brought by a school boy to show-and-tell: “those treasures the children grasped, / waiting to proudly brag, unaware / that what they held was waste.” Sometimes metaphors trip up on themselves, though at other times Champion’s technique scores a surprising point: truth comes fast and hard as tequila vomit, for instance, or, in another poem, allure for a rebound lover is just “grief, gussied up in drag.”
The voice that dominates this collection is calloused, one that has grown tough around old wounds, a process of psychic scarring that seems not unrelated to the cold distance from which the narrator can observe, briefly, her lover chewing, before she breaks. This shell—as hard yet as delicate as that around a boiled egg—leads not only to a cynical posture (falling in love is like holding petrified shit in your hand) but also to narrative set-ups (ex-lovers reunited for a sharply symbolic tour of a glass art exhibit, for instance).
When language seems to fail Champion—as with that “rich,” “fine” spread at the dinner—it fails the character, the lover in that particular scene. Thus, if the voices in these poems turn too often to “raw,” it is because these voices yearn for some signifier for the feral, the un-touched-up by language, the frenzy of a drunken make-out session or the pre-dawn sneaking away from someone else’s bed. If the poems here come across, at times, drunk on their own topics, lost in a world—a cosmos, even—where the constellations strewn across the heaven exist only in relation to two people, their trajectories, that is because, once more, the writing here seeks to capture that immediate moment.
But, to be clear, it is the moment of reflection that is most often being captured: a lover thinking into words the experience of sitting at that table, watching that tongue. The poems here strain, sometimes hyperbolically, to present themselves as literature, as literary. Yet, simultaneously, they express emotion in the (to use, again, a frequent term here) “raw” vernacular of a journal, a notepad. Champion, I feel, wants rich food and to eat it too: the choice made here, in terms of craft, is to favor the immediate formulation over the time-hewn line that—in that paradox that is art—best gets at, captures, conveys, and memorializes that immediate feeling. We have more of the text message thumbed from a bathroom on the night of, in these pages, than the poem written after several month’s revising and revisiting.
In all of this, it is the patches of plainspeak that come across strongest. “I’m naked in bed next to a man / who continually disappoints me,” one poem says, rendering irrelevant any similes that might follow. Another, on the process of poetry, says that what it does is “transform / old pain into absurdity,” which reads as particularly vulnerable and confident, that Janus-faced egg-shell nature spelled out on the page.
Official Anne Champion Web Site
Official Gold Wake Press Web Site