Tuesday, April 29, 2008

 

Laurel Blossom’s Degrees of Latitude is a booklength narrative poem about a woman’s life organized through metaphors of geography, starting with the North Pole & arriving, eight sections later, at the South. It’s smart, funny, well-crafted, thoroughly envisioned and hardly a wannabe novel. Or if it is, then it occupies that strange intermedia space inhabited by Samuel Beckett, Carole Maso, David Markson. In short, very good company.

To call this a narrative poem, as Blossom herself has, fails to acknowledge how uniquely each section builds & focuses dramatic tension, not by getting characters in & out of rooms but through a palimpsest of detail. The narrator, “I,” functions as daughter, as wife, as lover, even as parent, pretty much in that order. The common thread that runs through each relationship, tho, is alcohol. Like the ice-breaker image on the book’s cover, alcohol plows through everything here, a path of devastation that runs from pole to pole.

Looking at how Blossom accomplishes this is worth noting. Here are the opening pages of “The Intemperate Zone,” very possibly the most hopeful in the book:

Hello, I dreamed, and nobody stared. Nobody laughed, thought they all had their clothes on. Margo put her arm around my shoulders, Hi hon. She drew me behind the green counter. She called to one of the others, who brought a uniform; she helped me into the black and white starched cuffs on the pretty white capped sleeves. She tied the apron in a white starched bow. She gave me a pair of white socks and black sneakers. They fit. Then she placed a headband on my black and white hair like a starched crown. It read Happy New Year. She showed me the kitchen. She taught me whiskey down.

 

*

 

I make circles with my pencil (feather duster) in the air.

I don’t know what to do with myself.

I haven’t had a drink in two weeks.

 

 

*

 

 

It’s all uphill from here, whispers my dead father in my ear.

 

 

*

 

 

Still, I thought everything would be changed.

The first time I stayed up past midnight, the first time I stayed up till dawn, the day I got married.

Ah, but my first drink.

 

 

*

 

 

Please, Freddie said when I tried to give up smoking, please have a cigarette.

 

 

*

 

 

Raise your arm, says Tolstoy.

You think it’s free will but it’s not. The whole chain of events from the start has led you up to.

Have a drink, said Freddie.

 

 

*

 

 

If the earth revolves around the sun, if cogito ergo sum, if reason reasons only with itself, if chance, if no plan, if whatever happens, that’s what it means, if ruled by our subconsciouses, if time equals space, if the world is mostly interstices, if relative, if probably, if we can blow the world to kingdom come, if language grumbles to itself alone.

 

 

*

 

 

In short:

For my eighteenth birthday, I bought myself a cocktail dress.

Martinis rampant on a navy field, embroidered down the side the heart is on.

 

 

*

 

 

I put glow-in-the-dark tape on the ashtray I used when I smoked in bed.

I may be a drunk, I told Freddie, but I’m not stupid.

This is not the language of lyric verse, nor of the particular sort of Quietist confessionalism one might associate, say, with Carolyn Forché or Jane Miller, both of whom blurbed this book. There is a grit to these descriptions & the language is constantly descriptive, not only of actions but of the unnamed narrator, who at no point in this work makes the slightest effort to be likeable. The ample use of white space accentuates the static nature of the writing – trying to write about a person who is, in so many senses of the word, stuck is profoundly risky.

I think this is almost certainly a project you get, and get in its entirety, or simply don’t get at all. I find it completely persuasive. The other risk – this trek through the devastation of what otherwise appears to have been a privileged life – what I think of as the Anne Sexton problem – will perhaps limit its readership even further. There is even a moment of potential incest, not however with the narrator as predator. I have no idea whether any or all of this might have some basis in Blossom’s own life (seen then as a roman a clef, Lionel taken for Leonard, etc.) and frankly don’t care. Blossom clearly knows deeply about what she is writing – the tape on the ashtray is a perfect alcoholic detail, building in all the little buffers to prevent challenging the larger elephant in the room.

Like Roberta Beary’s The Unworn Necklace, Degrees of Latitude is a book I almost certainly never would have come across absent the Poetry Society of America process. I don’t think it’s for everyone – and it surely wasn’t written with language poetry’s audience in mind – but it’s a powerful, intelligent book. Its sadness will stay with you for days.

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