Wednesday, June 22, 2016
The Uneaten Carrots of Atonement by Diane Lockward
by Diane Lockward
Wind Publications, 2016
Reviewed by David P. Miller
I laughed out loud – with pleasure – at my first look at the cover of The Uneaten Carrots of Atonement, Diane Lockward’s fourth collection of poems. For a start, the title itself put me in mind of religious allegory gone off the rails, like a surrealist Pilgrim’s Progress. And Brian Rumbolo’s watercolor illustration, of a rabbit with two intact carrots in its paws, seemed weirdly hilarious, given its baleful expression. It says something about the complexity of Ms. Lockward’s work, though, that when we read the poem in question, the laugh sticks in the throat. We’ll come to this later on.
Diane Lockward’s verbal dexterity is stunning, evidence of a ceaseless power of image-making. “Rampant imagination,” I said to myself many times, reading this volume. It’s hardly possible to select any so-called best examples, so here are some presented almost at random. In “Thinking Like a Buddhist,” the speaker’s sight of a dead grackle swarmed with flies – a mundane backyard tragedy – leads eventually to
[ …] Where do birds go to die?
Why isn’t the earth littered wrens, their wings folded,
eyes like glass beads? Why has no jogger ever been
pelted with deceased sparrows? Shouldn’t dead crows
be blocking the entrance to the Shop-Rite, blue jays lying
on highways? How do birds arrange their deaths in places
so obscure no one ever finds the bodies, like those corpses
dumped by mobsters into vacant lots and construction sites?
And the avian death speculations don’t end there. “How I Dumped You” might be read as the ultimate revenge/breakup poem, but goes so far beyond in relentlessness that you can barely pause to laugh:
I violated a local ordinance and hurled you like a bagful
of dog-doo onto someone else’s yard, tossed you like
watermelon rind after a picnic, like a brown banana peel,
like a used Kleenex, like a dead chipmunk. I scraped you
from the sole of my sneaker like a wad of chewed-up gum.
At least three poems explicate the nuances of colors. “The Color of Magic” elaborates red in at least two dozen dimensions (though taking a count is somewhat futile) and “Why yellow makes me sad” – the title a quotation from a Geico commercial – presents that color in a deluge of variations. It’s “A Polemic for Pink,” though, that may present the greatest surprise. After thirty-eight lines of praise for this often deprecated color, including –
I like a color that dares to be outrageous, but doesn’t
mind going soft and pink as a watered-down communist,
that eschews the ideological red of marinara
for the creamy compromise of pink sauce.
– we’re brought up at the close by this: “And Jackie Kennedy in the back of a black / Lincoln Continental, her pink Chanel suit like a drift / of blossoms blown across her husband’s body.” This sensibility, where ebullience lives cheek-by-jowl with terror, lies in wait throughout the entire volume, to this reader’s endless delight.
Lockward presents poems where the speaker’s identification with animal and plant life supersedes anthropomorphism. The voice is that of a kind of fusion not reducible to speaking in the Other’s voice. This can be difficult to untangle. In “Where Feathers Go When They Fall,” for example, the speaker imagines herself into a kind of bird consciousness but never declares “now I know how birds feel” or something to that effect. The latter variant on the persona poem is valued by many, but seems a shaky enterprise to me, at least so far. Instead, the poet’s own imagined transformation is given:
[ … ] Home is a tree
now, children hatched
and gone, none to peck
my heart. I do not worry
or grieve, only imagine them
in tall trees, too high for
cat’s paw, and go back
to fumbling for worms.
“Eminent Domain” features a speaker unambiguously human, but so melded with animal suffering that, beyond pity, she takes action almost without thought. A “large and terrifying” dog has killed a daughter’s pet rabbit, “a bundle of white fur, ruined, blood-spattered.”
Slowly she removed her belt, wrapped it around her fist,
buckle end in palm, as her father had done, and whipped
the dog, again and again, made it whimper and cry,
then untwirled the leather and struck with the buckle
until the dog ran, its fur streaked with blood.
You will notice the startling, and fleeting, reference to the father, from whom she evidently learned the practice of beating. You can be grateful, too, for the dog as a scapegoat, as the mother
[ … ] waited for hours on the porch, a mother at last,
waiting to explain to her child that sometimes what we love
goes away and doesn’t come back. She would not speak
of revenge, how it had seized her, how good it had felt,
knowing she could split a boulder with her fist.
A poem’s title has many potentials, including seduction and betrayal. It’s easy to imagine someone scanning the table of contents, spotting “I Want to Save the Trees,” and passing it by with tree-hugger assumptions. Or, maybe, turning directly to the poem with the same assumptions. Neither reader will be prepared for the poem’s eventual dissolving of boundaries between the speaker, the objects of her attention, and the fauna Others.
[ … ] On my knees, I beg the oak’s forgiveness.
If I’d known that the filthy knife wielder was rotten
as a diseased Dutch Elm, I would not have let him
shove in his blade and carve a heart into the bark,
his initials and mine forever locked inside,
my tree wounded, forever tattooed like a prisoner.
It is not simply that the speaker expresses sorrow for the damage done to a tree, but that her own woundedness is locked into the bark; the one-time lover is also condemned to his own tree life, “with his heart // rot and his ring of lies, his roots weak and shallow / as the willow’s uprooted in last winter’s storm.”
The poems already cited here indicate another thread running through this work, that of the permanent ambiguity of human relationships, particularly within the family, with partners and lovers. “Original Sin” puts the book’s title and cover in its (actually shocking) context. Lockward tells how her sister pulled off the tail of their pet rabbit, but that she took the blame rather than defend herself:
I wondered then and wonder still why I took
the blame for hurting the pet I’d loved. I only know
that once Karen said I’d done it and my father
looked at me as if I had, I was guilty,
as guilty as those unbaptized babies
The rabbit did not survive, leading us to this: “Her sweet body, already stiff, / lay among the uneaten carrots of atonement.” The mastery is that, 1) the metaphor remains outrageous, but 2) at the same time, the image burns, and there is no resolution.
In contrast, “Your Beard, I Love It Not” is a riotous denial of an ardent lover’s facial prowess, and another instance of the poet’s unstoppable invention:
Take a blade and hack it off—that birdless nest,
that crumb catcher, chinful of tumbleweed, duck
blind, lice hotel, that bugaboo of children, that pile
of leaves I dare not dive into.
Although this poem drives toward one specific possibility — “Let me be / your Delilah, lost in the wild field of your face” — sustained relationships cannot really be surmised, only imaged. The title of “The Seasons of a Long Marriage” suggests one of those “how did we get here, hubby” paeans, but of course it is no such thing. Images of late autumn bend toward the twinning of decay and persistence. The speaker, attempting to clean glass doors shone through by the sun, finds
[ … ] though I’ve squeegeed them
twice in two days, smudges
show on the other side.
Some spots just can’t be removed.
They’re here forever. Like scars.
The autumn and the marriage, not otherwise noted, come together only in a near-glancing conclusion: “Soon the green ground will be covered / with snow. The days turn cold. / My husband’s hair is gray.”
Two final poems are linked in a kind of inverse relationship. “Signs” is written in spacious couplets: the speaker tentatively, perhaps gratefully takes the observations of an outdoors walk and finds in them tokens on a path out of darkness:
[ …] To stand beside the playground
to gaze at the giant concrete turtle, without hating
the young mothers whose children climb across
its capacious back. [ … ]
[ … ] the turtle is now
your emblem, and if you’re lucky, which you are,
those you have shut out, those you have hurt
with the hard shell of your silence will somehow
still love you and you will move toward them,
carrying the ancient notched shell, your back
uncrushed by its weight, the mystery
of its hieroglyphics unfolded and laid at their feet.
The collection’s emblem reappears: “a soft // rabbit still lives inside you and after its long sleep / rubs its pink eyes”. But this is not the volume’s conclusion. The final poem, “And Life Goes On As It Has Always Gone On,” presents endless one-damn-thing-after-another contingencies in one relentless verse paragraph. Here again we have Diane Lockward’s breathtaking verbal fecundity:
Bees built nests under the eaves of your house.
They hunt you down and stab you many times
with their tiny switchblades—even your lips
while you’re eating a ham sandwich.
Blinded by an armful of fresh towels, you fall
down the stairs while rushing to answer the phone.
Your vertebrae shattered, that call from your lover
forever unanswered, sex forever impossible.
“Are you looking for compensation? / A rabbit nibbling the grass—does that console?” she asks later on, and yes we are looking, and no, we don’t know if the rabbit will help. What saves this from ordinary bleakness is the evident reveling in the world as it is, the sustained curiosity that makes such detail possible. “Life goes on as it has always gone on,” yes. And also yes, there are “Signs” infused in every moment. Both are inevitable, and there is not really a choice between them.
The book includes a couple of production errors. Two poems are missing from the table of contents: “In Defense of the Cashew” (page 31) and “August 11: Morning Prelude” (page 55). Also, the tercet structure of “Losing Daylight” is not well served by the break between pages 57 and 58 (compare “Where Feathers Go When They Fall”). I hope that this remarkable collection sees additional printings, or another edition, so that these may be remedied and the presentation of Diane Lockward’s astonishing work becomes immaculate.