Marilyn Annucci, Waiting Room, Hill-Stead Museum (Sunken Garden Poetry Prize), 2012
C. Kubasta, A Lovely Box, Finishing Line Press, 2013
by Wendy Vardaman
Chapbooks sometimes feel like a rest-stop on the way to a longer book, as if the poet got a little tired before finishing, a little too heavy to keep going. Or a bike with training wheels that will eventually come off when the rider becomes more skilled. When done well, however, they stand to the full-length book as a poem itself stands to prose: a marvel of compression, a vehicle that defies its ostensible size and what ought to be its limits—a little box from which elephants emerge, for instance. Or ocean liners. Or a some(one) juggling all of those things. These chaps, by Wisconsin poets Marilyn Annucci and C. Kubasta, refer self-consciously to limits of size and time in their titles, to small spaces, to the temporal experience of being boxed and captured, and their titles deliver significance throughout two deceptively "small" books of beautifully-crafted, challenging poems that share some strikingly similar themes and imagery.
Annucci’s book won the 2012 Hill-Stead Sunken Garden Poetry Prize. It’s her second chap. The “waiting room” refers to many things: the title poem, in which the poet-narrator observes a stranger in an unspecified place. Doctor’s office? Dentist? Train station? Classroom? Or life itself—waiting for love or friendship or success or publication or death. Some of these might have a literal waiting room, and all have metaphorical ones: some place where people see each other, even admire each other, but stop short of understanding and contact. Here's a few lines from the title poem:
but we never spoke, never
even met one another’s eyes,
though we were, both of us,
The waiting room also invokes Elizabeth Bishop, a poet whose meticulous craft, themes, and blend of lyric and narrative also characterize Annucci’s work. It would be an interesting exercise to compare Bishop’s waiting room, where the narrator as a 7-year-old comes to consciousness reading National Geographic in a dentist’s office, becoming aware of others, of suffering and of self, to Annucci’s waiting room.
We have no answers about why the poet is there (if she is there), what there is, or whom she waits for, though suffering, the failing body, the broken world, and journeys, real and metaphysical, are all significant throughout the collection.
Here’s a bit of “Wrecked World,” the first poem in the collection, as the narrator dips her hand into a dishpan searching out the knives at the bottom:
This is where the knives lie,
mute battleships gone down
on their sides. How wonderful
to find them unaware
and then to pull one, nose
up, and up
until it hangs in the stunned air—
wrecker in a wrecked world.
Were you wrong to dredge it up?—
Is there not meat to cut, and pie?
Like the knives at the bottom of the dishpan, there are issues, circumstances, that control the narrator and the poems, but the details of these stories are mostly submerged, and we have just little bits to go on, as in “About Suffering,” which alludes to a someone who “sang to me/ while I stood at the stove,/ and spoke of cures,/ even your optimism in those days/ made me a little sad.// The only life I’ve ever wholly believed in has been the body half-broken,/ or leaving.” The identity of this other isn’t clear, the narrator’s feelings are complicated, the situation is messy.
Narratives collect around mother, around childhood, around travel, around pain, around love. “Remembering My Mother Sewing” is a beautiful, unsentimental tribute to parents, whose obsessions, as much as their love, propel/control us into adulthood and beyond, as well as a point of connection, daughter to mother, craftsperson to craftsperson:
Evenings I’d find you
bent over the dining room table
like a surgeon over a disembodied angel.
Under five yellow lights
you would rearrange
the wispy wings, pin them
to the floral cotton,
the blue corduroy—
the common material our bodies might fit.
This was the beginning
of the reconstruction. You worked
with a quiet determination
Annucci draws on a range of experiences in poems of childhood, young adult travels, friendships and the death of friends, aging. While her thoughtful, guarded narratives can sometimes feel a little detached from their subjects, they create windows into subjectivity, maintaining a respectful distance that resists exoticization, as in the fine, descriptive/narrative poem, “The Women of the Kazan Cathedral”:
the slender tapers
The “pilgrim’s desire” is obliterated by the fingers, the snuffing, of the women in charge:
It doesn’t matter
these Mothers of Christ
say with their silence
say with their refusal
to meet your eyes.
A poet may gaze in wonder at the people she sees in Annucci’s Waiting Room, but she doesn’t deliver them—or herself—up to us.
C. Kubasta’s work sounds similar themes and some of the same narrative strategies in her controlled and cerebral pieces, though the method in A Lovely Box relies more on experimental language, lines, and subject matter. As Kubasta’s bio note says, “She likes to think of her poetry as a hybrid of creative and critical work, and makes extensive use of excerpted text, producing metatextual poems that engage the reader in questions of language, gender, and memory.” Kubasta’s “lovely box” is body, the page, the poem, life, consciousness, our unexamined ideas about romance/love/sex, and our politicized/ gendered/ colonized aesthetics—of poem, of person. What/ who/ where do we believe is beautiful? Why? How does that contain and limit us? Define us? Hurt us?
The nine longish poems have a collaged sense to their making that’s marked by asterisks. A Wisconsin native, Kubasta begins with the ubiquitous Midwestern barn in “The Barn.” But this isn’t your familiar, nostalgic farm scene, or even your familiar, gritty undoing of it. Instead we’re almost immediately in a literal/ metaphorical strip poker game of clothes and language that keeps getting relined and reconfigured, drawing our attentions to pronouns and to arrangements of text on the page. The barn itself, whatever it is—real, imagined, symbolic, metaphorical, connotation, denotation—all of the above, is up for grabs:
But then it was a new game. The magazine: a glossy page. (A man)(A woman)(People) doing something
(She)(He)(We)(They)(I) lay down on a mouse-eaten couch, took off (his)(her)(our)(their)(my) pants. But (he)(she)(we)(they)(I) didn’t look like the
(man)(woman)(people) in the magazine.
“A Poet Looks at the World as a Man Looks at a Woman” (originally published in VW 107 online), takes its title from Wallace Stevens, as well as some excerpts from Nathanial West’s Miss Lonelyhearts. It’s an intriguing piece about gender, subjectivity, metaphor, their relations to each other and the ways we live in—and against—the world through words. The method of assembly is detailed and definitional, moving from one vignette to the next through a history of the word scar, with relations to rock, cinder, fault, mark, removal, hearth, and associations to female, to women, to family and home, to birth:
Scar : rock : crag
from skerre, 1387 n. a lofty face
of rock upon a mountainside; a precipice, cliff
Great-grandmother Vernie in Fountain City, southern Wisconsin,
along the Mississippi. The ditches deep and concrete, littered with snakes
sunning. Each spring washed out, downtown flooded.
Mark the change, fall to winter, as semi-trailers
from the hills miss the turn before the tracks,
plunge into the muddy brown, ice-laced under bunchgrass.
from scar, 1673 n. A low or sunken rock
in the sea; a rocky tract
at the bottom of the sea
In Bath, I’d call my married boyfriend
at work, his secretary trilling, the American bird’s on the phone, and he’d ask
Can’t you at least put on the accent?
Kubasta’s poems are complicated and polyvocal, but they are not inaccessible. They mean and suggest, if sometimes obliquely, ambiguously. They invite and reward careful reading, and, as promised, they keep shifting position with respect to poem and critical work, as in “Production,” a critique of the language surrounding “eggs” and “sperm”:
central to our cultural definitions of male and female
extolling the female cycle as a productive enterprise, menstruation
[and how much worse this human-made labyrinth, this stopped
maze] must necessarily
be viewed as failure, a system
gone awry, making products
of no use, not to specification, unsalable, wasted, scrap.
Far from being produced, as sperm are, they merely
sit on the shelf, slowly degenerating and aging like overstocked
Rescue. Schatten and Schatten liken
the egg’s role to that of Sleeping Beauty: “a dormant bride
awaiting her mate’s magic kiss…”
The wording stresses the fragility and dependency of the egg
Like Annucci, Kubasta’s carefully chosen imagery is grounded in body and bone, and her exploration of language likewise ends in the religious . “Reliquary” is itself a lovely box, a “city of bones”:
as in vessel for bones
a box that holds bones
a container for the remains of notable persons; primarily bones, bits of hair, cloth
a vessel for the remains or artifacts of a saint
bones awaiting resurrection
A waiting room. Aren’t we/
you/she/he/it/I just? Waiting?
Just waiting/waited. Wait. Weight? Weighted.
Wendy Vardaman is co-editor of Verse Wisconsin, its own waiting room.