BY ROMAN GLADSTONE
Author: Erin Belieu
2014, Copper Canyon Press
Filed Under: Poetry
Slant Six is an apt metaphor for this collection. The Slant-6 was a power engine in Chrysler automobiles manufactured in the 1960’s-1980’s (Valiant, Plymouth, Dodge Dart), and it makes its appearance in Belieu’s collection in the poem, “Time Machine,” when the speaker remembers, in flashback, the anger she felt at the driver of a Mercedes who had flipped her off. “It should be harder to feel/this angry all the time.” The speaker feels enormous satisfaction as her Slant-6 guns up the Mercedes’ rear: “the Wild Kingdom death scene/ of her composure as she scrambles/ to get away….” Belieu is the woman behind the wheel throughout these often hilarious, fresh, imaginative poems. She’s as unbridled as that other wild Floridian poet, Denise Duhamel.
The Slant-6 was a component of down-market automobiles, unremarkable, unadorned, and so emblematic of the lovable character Belieu creates for herself, an unremarkable, not-necessarily-over-the-hill-but-certainly-approaching-the-peak woman, from the Midwest, who feels uncomfortable in New York social circles (“When at a Certain Party in NYC”: “Wherever your from sucks/ and wherever you grew up sucks.” Or, a little differently at the conclusion of “Love Letter: Final Visitation”: “Peace, peace, I free and undream you./ The priestess of nothing, / I am pleased to be plain.”).
Not that she’s apologetic; indeed, she is impatient with pretension and unmerited condescension, revels in the ordinary. (“Love Is Not an Emergency”: “But let’s admit there is a pleasure, too/ in living as we do // like three-strike felons who smile/ for the security cameras.” )
Yet Belieu has a way of elevating everydayness to a metaphysical level. Poems addressing mother-son issues (“Burying It,” “Energy Policy” and “Poem of Philosophical and Parental Conundrums Written in an Election Year”) become more than humorous reflections on parenthood (“how we’re suckered into thinking this kid stuff/ is a science when really it’s the most abstract / art form…”). The familiar kid situation – what will happen to you when you die or a kid who exhibits behavior that may border on sociopathy and whose fault is that, anyway? – becomes a meditation on the fundamental nature of being or “the obstinate and beautiful mystery/ that every soul ends up being to every other.”
Similarly, “The Body Is a Big Sagacity” becomes a sort of hilarious internal argument the poet has with Friedrich Nietzsche (“the spirit gets no vote, Fred”) about the accidents of our existence as physical, corporeal beings, in a way that makes me think of that Saul Bellow character, Moses Herzog, who argues with great thinkers in his head, and in letters; the poet here hopes “we’re something/ more than a sack of impulse” as she watches a little guy getting out of big truck in a Costco parking lot.
Belieu’s tone is consistently sassy, sarcastic, but sometimes the target is just way too elusive for this reader. Another reviewer notes that the poem, “I Growed No Potatoes to Write About, Sir” “seems to take aim at poets like Seamus Heaney.” It’s a delightful poem but you do wonder why she wrote it. Similarly, who or what is “Fathers Never Answer” about, Belieu’s dad? This difficulty is sort of summed up, for me, in the final lines of “The Problem of the Domestic”: “kudos to you for knowing/ what I’m talking about.” And tough luck to you who don’t!
But mainly these poems are just a delight to read. Lines like “The Rapture came/ and went without incident,// but I put off folding my laundry,/ just in case” (“Ars Poetica for the Future”) have a Woody Allen-like wiseass quality (“I don’t believe in the after life, although I am bringing a change of underwear.”). “H. Res. 21-1: Proposing the Ban of Push-Up Bras, Etc.” is a hilarious meditation on the American worship of youth and denial of age. The afore-mentioned “When at a Certain Party in NYC” is a wry, comical take on “certain” chic New York gatherings. Another example from “Victoria Station” that made me smile:
urgent as the red-
lacquered phone box
she bawls into weekly, fears
herself the character
whose paragraphs you skip
One of the two epigraphs to this collection is a translation of Ingeborh Bachmann’s “Nach dieser Sintflut” that begins “After this deluge…” The collection ends with Belieu’s “Après Moi,” which suggests that famous quotation attributed to Louis XV, “Après moi, le deluge” and so in a way bookends the collection. After the poetic Belieu persona passes:
it all goes up.
Kablooey! Good luck
enjoying those bonfires
with no s’mores!
The Belieu persona, for all her middleaged ordinariness, is still bigger than life, barreling down on us with terrifying joie de vivre in her Slant Six!