by Carolyn Smart
Brick Books, 2009; 120 pp; $19.00
The idea behind this collection of poems is intriguing, though potentially frustrating. Smart explores the lives of seven noteworthy and/or notorious women in the form of concocted first person narratives. This strategy assumes a familiarity on the part of the reader with the women involved, and in cases like Zelda Fitzgerald, Carson McCullers, and Elizabeth Smart, the back story is likely a little more well-known. Others are vaguely familiar, and a couple are near mysteries. One almost feels obligated to do internet searches in order to get a better handle on some of Smart’s text.
In the case of Myra Hindley, this relative obscurity plays into the content well. She first tells us about her partner Ian: “his nails were clean/ and he read books.” A little later on, she casually discusses the dead bodies of young children, and by the end of the section, you get the feeling you should be putting the book down and washing your hands.
Smart’s narratives are consistently blunt and brash. Unity Mitford tells us “there is a bullet in the middle of my brain, now/ please tell me who I am.” This approach is very effective in some places, but seems a little too distant in others. When Zelda Fitzgerald tells us that “exhausted by drink and debt/ we went again to Paris where the 20th century lived,” there is less of a sense of an insightful interior monologue and more of a feeling of a clever sound bite from a cheeky documentary.
Smart, however, can be forgiven a few of these overdone conceits, partly because they manage to cover some impressive territory. Dora Carrington tells us that “like all good artists I’ll be known forever/ by only my last name,” and then “I will beg to enter your bed/ you will wrap me in your unfamiliar arms/ and follow my rules of behaviour.” The Jane Bowles section carries on in this unapologetic tone: “no one knew me on my knees/ in doorways, my mouth around a man/ to find the cash to buy my girl/ some food and proper clothes” and “Can you direct me to the nearest cocktail center?” (Shades of Djuna Barnes!)
All of these narratives share an overwhelming sense of lack of control. It isn’t that these women have experienced life as much as they’ve plodded through it. Elizabeth Smart tells us “what is left of my youth rushes up like a geyser/ as I sit in the sun combing lice from my hair.” It’s no wonder that she sat in Grand Central Station and wept.
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From Issue #53.