» Book Review

Mortal Words

Bukowski in a Sundress, by Kim Addonizio

Penguin, 2016

224 pages, paper, $16.00


Mortal Trash, by Kim Addonizio

W.W. Norton, 2016

112 pages, hardcover, $25.95


Dissatisfied with the label “confessional poet,” Kim Addonizio nonetheless owns up to it in the pages of Bukowski in a Sundress: Confessions from a Writing Life (Penguin, 2016). “I hope you will forgive me,” she deadpans partway through this funny, lyrical, moving set of essays. “I can’t seem to stop telling you everything about me in the lineated memoir of my life.” Poetry, that “lineated memoir,” serves as but one topic here, from the satirical “How to Succeed in Po Biz” (“It is crucial not to win the major award, because then you might feel too great a sense of achievement. Be a finalist, but not a winner”) to the candid “How I Write.” “Each time, I’m lost,” she admits. “Each time, I wish I hadn’t started down this road.”


Other essays here similarly de-romanticize Addonizio’s writing life without diminishing its psychic and emotional rewards. She recalls a revelatory moment in childhood, being “hurled into tumultuous confusion about the true nature of reality” when she saw how the ordinary word bologna was spelled: “Clearly,” she writes, “there were deeper truths than I realized lurking beneath not only language, but existence itself”(“Best Words, Best Order”).


With characteristic humor, Addonizio goes on to credit another word, libido—part of a rhyme scrawled anonymously on a schoolyard wall—with inspiring her lifelong twin obsessions, eros and language. One of the sharpest essays here, “The Process,” begins as an anodyne craft talk to MFA writing students—the title itself a workshop shibboleth—but after nodding to such writing-program proprieties as “inspiration” and “revision” Addonizio throws down the gauntlet: “maybe what you really need to learn is something else, like how to write a decent English sentence.” Addonizio practices what she preaches. The writing throughout Bukowski in a Sundress is vivid and memorable, the sentences bristling or sinuous as the need arises, qualities readers of her poems have come to expect. Indeed, some passages here have the intensity as well as the verve and wit of Addonizio’s best poetry:


We shelled peanuts from a red plastic basket and sat together
through the late afternoon as the sun lowered itself gradually
over the docks and the boats like a shining woman lowering herself
into a very large, sparkling bathtub. Or maybe like a shooting star
on heroin. Or maybe the sun was more of a golden quaalude, slipping
down the darkening blue throat of the day.
(“Are You Insane?”)


As in her poems, Addonizio’s essay topics range from the quotidian to the tragic: not only flu shots, cocktails, and “How to Fall for a Younger Man,” but also emotionally disturbed family members, single parenthood, and her mother’s battle with Parkinson’s Disease. Along the way we find plenty to laugh over as well as ponder, from the indignities of online dating to the smarminess of literary critics. (Her book’s title, originally a reviewer’s jibe, is a label Addonizio gleefully accepts.) Such acceptance is necessary to the confessional mode. “I confess to happiness,” she writes. “I confess to grief.” Far from mere rationalizing or hoping to atone for admitted missteps, and just as far from self-congratulation, Addonizio’s dispatches “from the writing life” make clear the emotional ballast such a life requires even as they distinguish one’s art from one’s lived experience: “I confess that a kelson of my creations is love. The poems are not the life.”


This kelson of love turns out to be a preoccupation in Mortal Trash (W.W. Norton, 2016), Addonizio’s latest collection of poems, published nearly simultaneously with Bukowski in a Sundress. More particularly, she is interested in the ways love has so often been poetically construed or codified: Addonizio devotes major sections of the book to revisions of, or responses to, poems by Shakespeare, John Donne, and others. Her tweaking of a famous image or line can honor the original love poem while also addressing the realities of contemporary relationships. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”) looms dauntingly over the lover’s complaint in Addonizio’s poem: “I couldn’t compare this to anything / I’m not going to talk about it now.” The speaker laments the miles separating lovers, but just when we think she has achieved some aesthetic, ironic detachment with a joke about remedying the situation (“every airline fare sometimes declines”), Addonizio reminds us that—the Bard notwithstanding—poetry in fact is no match for Time: “Death still has bragging rights / this line has stopped breathing.” The omission of conventional punctuation from the poems in this section furthers the sense of dislocation, unmooring us from the Shakespearean original just far enough. We hear it echoed and renewed.


Mortal Trash trades in such re-workings and reappraisals of poetry’s means, its metaphors and imaginings. As in her prose “confessions,” Addonizio often satirizes her chosen art both to refresh it and to suggest its continuing relevance. “[L]et me not to the pediment of two minds / admit marriage,” a speaker quips in a tweaking of Sonnet 116, the line break here providing an extra satiric bite to the reversal of Shakespeare’s syntax.  The substitution of “pediment” for “impediment” is crucial, the barrier to love in the original reduced to what may be merely a façade of love in Addonizio’s version.


One of the pleasures of Addonizio’s verse is this kind of darkly comic turn, this jab of rueful insight. “Plastic” begins with a grim environmental fact that “trashes,” so to speak, the hackneyed language of love:


A bunch of it is floating somewhere
way out in the Pacific.
If your love is deeper than the ocean,
then the surface of your love is a swirl
of swill, toothbrushes and swizzle sticks
carried by the inevitable current…


Skeptical as they may be of conventional tropes, we shouldn’t overlook that these lines make for wonderful poetry themselves, the vivid image of consumer detritus washing in on the tide of those “s” sounds: surface, swirl, swill, swizzle… Likewise the lines that conclude “Elegy for Jon”:


I wish the sea would stop
swallowing his name, while it goes on
kissing the sand, laying
another cold wreath at my feet.


The swish of the sea is conveyed in those s’s, the low vowels (stop and swallow and on, goes and cold) competing with the high, bright e’s in sea and wreath and feet as if to mimic the internalized tones of grief, a shifting between dirge and keen.


Indeed, nearly every page in Mortal Trash yields its metaphorical and acoustic riches. In “Divine” we see “black trees / hung with sleeping bats / like ugly Christmas ornaments.” Another poem offers “the ROYGBIV” of damp bras laid out to dry. Elsewhere we watch “this slut of a river smear kisses all over / east Manhattan. “Charting the emotions, the “mortal trash” that is the heart, remains Addonizio’s primary concern throughout the volume, but this creative “kelson” of love in her work merges with her gimlet-eyed retooling of tradition at several key points. Perhaps the best example, “Here Be Dragons,” reads as both a map of love’s perils and a kind of ars poetica. “I’m not done with the compass / & I’m still puzzling over the chart,” her speaker begins, then admits to being drawn to the outlandish, even the dangerous. This holds true emotionally (sea monsters and sirens “were my lovers” and “what dragged me down”) as well as artistically, the poem concluding with the refreshing brashness we hear throughout both this collection and her book of essays:


I drank
in the taverns with pirates howler
monkeys my sea captain ancestors my
sozzled staggering fathers & returned
but not to any harbor only the curved
surface I sailed on


If “confessional,” these two books rise above both the typical memoir’s tendency to capitalize on addiction or dysfunction and much of contemporary poetry’s self-defeating rage against coherence. Bukowski in a Sundress treats with candor as well as mordant humor the travails of not only “the writing life” but life, period—this existence we nevertheless are stuck with, and which Addonizio’s poems renew our passion for, mortality in all its awkward, exasperating, despairing, and joyous “trash.”


James Scruton

James Scruton’s most recent collection is Exotics and Accidentals (Grayson Books, 2009). A recipient of the Frederick Bock Prize from Poetry magazine, his work has appeared in recent issues of Spitball, Steam Ticket, and Third Wednesday, and is forthcoming in Poetry East and Southern Poetry Review.