Book Review

Pyrotechnics at Amherst

          If I feel, physically, as if the top of my head were taken off,
            I know that is poetry.

—Emily Dickinson

But which ones were they—the poems that did
this awesome deed?  Whose gunpowder lines
ignited right in front of her, firing flame-red
peonies, palms, rockets, straight into her brain?

Herbert’s transcendental thunder?
Or Emerson, whose counterpoints of doom
and doubt, science and salvation, stunned her—
dazzled her with their afterbloom?

Did she survive the heart-stopping artillery
of Keats, of Barrett-Browning—the kind that flies
and detonates before it falls? Or did she,
pale target, take it right between the eyes?

How long till she came back to life again,
trembling and reaching for her pen?

—Marilyn L.Taylor, Milwaukee, WI

Going Wrong by Marilyn L. Taylor. Madison, WI:  Parallel Press, 2009. $10.00.

Reviewed by Barbara Crooker

How do I love thee, Marilyn Taylor, let me count the ways:  because your poems are full of wit and great word play?  Because your language is brimming with music?  Because you remember, as William Carlos Williams said, that “if it ain’t a pleasure, it ain’t a poem?”  Or is it because you are a formalista par excellence, with one villanelle, one sestina, one crown of sonnets, one Taylorina (a series of envelope quatrains with a fifth line that rhymes with all the other 5th lines), two mono rhymes, two rhymed quatrains, and eight sonnets in this one short collection?  Or is it maybe all of the above?

Because everything is going right in Going Wrong, the Wisconsin Poet Laureate’s newest book.  Let’s start with the imagery.  In the first poem, “The Aging Huntress Speaks to Her Reflection,” we have the speaker, who is perhaps the goddess Diana, look at her face in the mirror (“Dear old moon of a face”) to thank it for “always giving me your best tilt / and a little quiver of lies—,” a nifty pun on both movement and where the goddess stores her arrows.  But wait, there’s more.  The poem ends with “while we knock a few back, / shoot the breeze, / and bathe together / in your fading borrowed light,” reflecting Diana’s usual association with the moon, but which is also enhanced by the breezy tone, the sense that the speaker and her image are now pals, and the deeper feeling of a woman of a certain age making peace with the face she has now.

Speaking of the moon, how about a different take on it in “I Miss You and I’m Drunk”:  “Look at the way the moon just sits there / with its brights on, aiming / that yellowish beam across the water.”  Here, the deft use of figurative language turns the moon into a parked car down by the beach on a summer night, and places the reader in the backseat, observing.

Now take a look at the clever way she calls a poem about a modern day Romeo and Juliet “November in Verona, Wisconsin,” which has the line “graffiti out of fourteen eighty-four”  for the sheer wit of it.  Or listen to her finely tuned ear, as in this aural image from “The Lovers at Eighty,” how the “delicacy / with which they let each other go // had made a sound like taffeta.”  Or hearken to her tone, when she strikes a punk attitude in “Rhetoric”(from “The Seven Very Liberal Arts”):  “Clear out your retrosexual groceries— / that loaf of bread, the jug of wine—right now;” with its wicked ending: “May your next cocktail be a Molotov, / and everything that you hold dear fall off.”

That’s certainly an unforgettable image, as are many of the ingenious rhymes and sound devices she uses.  “At the Cocktail Party” is comprised of two monorhymed stanzas, a very tough trick to pull off.  But she does, matching “retrogressive brain” with “zero strain,” “Here I Go Again refrain” with “shoot some Novocain.”  And then in stanza two, there’s “private lore” echoed by “kinky sex galore,” “terrific bore,” and “one two three four.”  What fun!  I’ve never seen “my magnitude increases” rhymed with “my mind’s in Reese’s Pieces” before (“A Highly Caloric Lament”).  And then there’s the audacious “can we go” rhymed with “Branson MO” and “of Toby Keith” with “from underneath” (the “Music” sonnet of “The Seven Very Liberal Arts”).  Not all her rhymes are moon/June/spoon true rhymes, either.  There’s the delicious muting of “might have been” and “libertine” in “Latter-day Letter to ESVM” and “the woozy moon / spreading its silver fingers over yours / . . .until / the swollen stars were winking like voyeurs” in “Astronomy” (in “The Seven Very Liberal Arts”).  Then there’s the delicious couplet in “Home Again, Home Again,” a saga of adult boomerang children:

            Reclaiming the bedrooms they had in their teens,
            Clean towels, warm comforter, glass figurines.

Not only is that last image spot-on-perfect, it’s hilarious in its rhyme, and poignant in what it tells us about its subject, all at the same time.

And who says poetry can’t be funny?  Or sexy, either?  Taylor herself raises this question in the “Logic” section of the above-named sonnet crown: 

Ever try to dance
with Logic, to unzip its crotchety pants,
get sexy deconstructing Kierkegaard?

Anyone who mocks deconstruction sure has my ear!  In “Drive All Night,” Taylor takes a satiric look at small towns with “eight / or nine hundred rubes named Dwayne.”   Then she uses her acid pen in this revenge poem (“Studying the Menu”):  “Speaking of all those things you’ll never eat, / my love—could one of them, in fact, be crow?”  Here’s the narrator’s wish for her replacement, “that sloe- / eyed slack-jawed creature” with “all the nuance of a bitch in heat”: 

I hope she has the brains of a golden retriever,
the glamour of an aging manatee,
the refinement of a Packers wide receiver
and finds her favorite books at Dollar Tree.

That third line is especially apt, coming from the Badger State poet laureate!

But let’s get back to sexy.  What’s fun about these poems is how the risqué lines appear in unlikely places; for example, in the sonnet on Geology in the sonnet crown, with the line, “[you cause] a nine on my internal Richter scale,” and the ending, “remember I am molten at the core.” Or in the sonnet on Arithmetic:  “the time has clearly come for you to lay / your Freddie Mac against my Fannie May” or in the one on Grammar:  “Come scan me carefully. . . . / Scribble suggestions slowly down my spine.”  And then there’s the ribald poem that uses music as a metaphor (“A Capella”):   “rising glissandos, sweet in the extreme, / where semiquavers rise, explode, and die,” satirizing the over-the-top language in romance novels.   Nobody does it better, or writes more elegantly about sex than Marilyn Taylor.

However, it is in considering the formal elements where this collection really shines.  Look at the fun she has with the linking lines of the sonnet crown.  The last line of sonnet one,  “And no one needs to write a book on that” links into “My dear Professor, write a book on me—”  in sonnet two, which ends “as if I were a promising first draft. ” Sonnet three starts “If I can promise you a frosty draft / of Bud Lite,” then ends, "Get in the car.  Shut up.  Don’t get me started,”  which becomes:  “Shut up.  Shut up, shut up, shut up.  Okay?”  as the first line of sonnet four.  That one ends, “and everything that you hold dear fall off,”  so that sonnet five can begin:  “Hold it!—hold everything—I’m falling off.”  The end of it, “remember, I am molten at the core” turns into “Mmm-mm, it melts the very core of me” in sonnet six, whose ending is  “your Freddie Mac against my Fannie Mae.” Then Fannie Mae becomes Fannie Mendelssohn (very clever) in the last sonnet, whose final lines “to bring one moment’s peace to this old earth” echo and reverberate back to the beginning line of sonnet one:  “A moment’s peace from you, old Earth.”  (“The Seven Very Liberal Arts:  A Crown of Sonnets”)

From where I stand, the most interesting formal poems are the ones that get the furthest away from regularity, and so again, there is much to admire in the way Taylor mutes the repeated lines in her extended villanelle (23 lines instead of the usual 19), “To a 17-Year-Old:  A Commencement Address.”  The first repetend is “I’d like to tell him something he should know” which morphs into “quit mouthing things I think he ought to know,” then “on all the things he doesn’t know I know” (great line!) to “even small precautions. (Like he doesn’t know?)” and “I’ll tell him everything he needs to know.” This last line made me want to shout, “Amen!  Tell it like it is, Sister Marilyn!”  The second repetend starts out as “I don’t think he’s going to like it, though,” then becomes “He’s right.  And he won’t like it much.  Although” and “beneath the basement stairs.  He’ll deny it, though.” to “He’ll barely listen.  That won’t stop me, though,” which is a great ending to this terrific poem.

To sum things up, this book rocks, all the way through.  Marilyn Taylor has clearly had a lot of fun “fooling around with words” (Robert Pinsky, former U. S. Poet Laureate), from her vibrant imagery and clever wit to her musical language and sexy humor to her expertise with form, and so will her readers, as they discover for themselves all the many things that are right about Going Wrong.

Among her many other awards, Barbara Crooker is the recipient of the 2006 Ekphrastic Poetry Award from Rosebud.  Her most recent book is Line Dance, (Word Press 2008), winner of the 2009 Paterson Award for Literary Excellence.  She lives and writes in rural PA, but has a fondness for Wisconsin based on the lovely audiences she encountered in Madison and Waukesha, and the excellence of writing that she found when she judged the Lorine Niedecker Prize. Her website is Crooker's poems, "Blackberries" and "Goddesses" appear in Verse Wisconsin magazine, audio available online.