Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008) and the forthcoming critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2010). An instructor at Loyola University, Chicago, Dew also reviews books for Rain Taxi Review of Books and art for Newcity Chicago. His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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Whether describing the “warped pudding” of dried vomit or the downy lanugo of an anorexic, the loving ministrations of a mother over a sick child or the man who’ll soon “pet / your cloche until the flowers fall, / lick your little doll skull / to sunburn, a wolf in friendship...” Melissa Broder shows major chops. Here is a poet with a gift of gaze, able to look long and hard and deep at the world, then think just as hard, churning near-perfect lines out of her observations, telling stories, in this book, about both coasts, from pure childhood to the angled hipster present in a narrative voice that is charming, disarming, and instantly addictive, hitting the pitch for tough, sexy, funny, sad, and wise, often all together, and in harmony.
It’s the range as well as the rhythm that makes this book, how Broder can shift, with ease, from the interior world of “field hockey fillies / and cotillion colts” to that of Jewish matriarchs, from field notes on a variety of men, their manly get-up and let down, to “Boys,” seen through the sugar-buzz crush gaze of adolescent awe, “Sparrow spirits on skateboards, // bottles of Tahitian Treat, Rose’s Cola / and blue raspberry Slurpees laced with vodka.”
With poems that make a quick slip from glory holes to “a frozen Jenny Craig / glazed salmon,” Broder offers serious and steady consideration of our human world, from detox to religion to bad finger-banging, from deconstruction of the romantic “movie myths” of heroin use to meditations on the sage initiatory advice of Seventeen magazine. This book is a pleasure, but it is also, relentlessly, more than that, far more than a mash-up of the moment’s culture, the flaunted moxy sheathing some heavy reflections. Tattoos aren’t just talked about; their ramifications are considered. Aging anarchists aren’t just nudged; they’re offered heartfelt condolences for the dangerous naïveté of their dreams.
Indeed, Jim Jones clones lurk behind liberal sentiment, and the spiritual Pop Rocks of paperback Tantra might not be too far removed, in terms of ultimate act, from the desires of fry cooks monogramming their biceps with cigarette burns. Consider the former New York real estate agent, wandering into the landfill that is San Francisco and the tragedy that is his own faith in consumer reinvention. The city
...distends to make room for him
and his brand new Tensor Lo 5.0
skateboard parts, surfboard on back-order, Oakley
blinkers, pocket Dharma Bums, as he drinks
Anchor at Vesuvio, brushes asses
with the young ladies of Columbus, buys bad weed
from the pavement teens on Upper Haight and good stuff
from the medical place at Fillmore Street.
But there’s empathy even in the most dismal portraits, and a concern with humanity—as the whole mess of us, poetic narrators included—which shores together these pieces into something solid, something more than the sum of their technically excellent parts. The greedy and potentially selfish work of poetry is itself held up to scrutiny, as in “Your Mother is Dying and I Want Details,” where the narrator hungers for “updates, last regrets,” description of “the stench.” Elsewhere, the intimacy of the poem’s voice is bolstered by the vulnerability just under the bluster. In the face of the new organic sincerity, the narrator has to “reach in my trick sack // for a nicotine patch / and a bottle of Klonopin.” The poetic witness here is indicted and effected, meshed in the scenes and desires it relays. When, for instance, we hear that
Men sold Tecate, limes and sticky smack,
the telephone rumored of midnight sluts
and what they did in vacant parking lots,
hard with Aqua Net and Charlie, rubbing
up against somebody...
It’s not just a stage set or a cluster of nifty words. The world of this book is real world, profoundly felt.
Freud held we sometimes let slip such deep feeling, unintentionally. Broder, on the other hand, has put her muscle into each poem here count as a statement of reality.
And in so doing, she’s infused something sparkling and super-charged into the seemingly banal—which is maybe a decent definition for art. Broder can work with anything—from the Dixie cups at the methadone clinic to pots of chicken soup. Check this description of laundry action: “Cotton / won’t shrink from the quickening friction. / Fluff it, pat it, crease and repeat.” Childhood, young adulthood, family, language, life, death, and desire—all these are folded in, still sparking with static and radiating warmth from the spin cycle, to make When You Say One Thing but Mean Your Mother a major statement from a poet with skill and soul.
Official Melissa Broder Web Site
Official Ampersand Books Web Site