[Joanne Dominique Dwyer. Belle Laide. Louisville, Kentucky: Sarabande Books, 2013]
Joanne Dominique Dwyer—Belle Laide—If to Love Is to Inhabit
(Initially published on the uOttawa website here)
One cannot but love a book that starts this way: “First my father Killing Me Softly with his Roberta Flack album./ Then my son Killing Me Softly with his Fugees CD” especially when those are the opening lines of an ars poetica—actually “Ars Poetica, or Keeper-of-the-Water.” Contemporary young poets apparently feel a need to start their (first) books with ars poeticas, and some of them do it well. Joanne Dominique Dwyer is one of those—while providing a relevant imago of the poet at work as being at home, since the metaphor in the title has to do with the frozen birdbath the birds peck on in the cold outside the speaker’s home. The image gives her the opportunity to interrupt her own speech with a sharp aside in which she both scolds and… scalds herself: “Excuse me un mementino, while I boil/ water to pour on the ice. Bullshit!/ you’re not going to take time to boil water/ when it scalds right from the tap.” A quirky discourse of a restless poet who will not take bull from anybody, herself included. And, like in other recent ars poeticas, she addresses the reader directly, but since other poets unwillingly prove to actually be afraid of the latter, or at least mistrustful, and try to compensate for that by showing off, she off-handedly invites them into her family, her home, her own body (of words), even calling them lover but also warning all the way about the deadly dangers of such togetherness “I can see why lovers commit suicide together./ And why you enter me with such abandon,” as the only one she’s actually afraid of seems to be herself and the cancer-like unstoppable expansion and inclusiveness of her verse : “On my shoulder a carcinoma that will eventually kill me—/ will eat my flesh, as I eat yours.”
But is this a Whitmanesque inclusiveness—not really, not at first at least, rather one centered on or starting from the familial, the interior, the bookish. “I don’t get out much—socially, for adult pleasure./ But I read a lot” starts a captivating poem that takes us into the speaker’s extensive readings of Turkish harem accounts, and then to the speaker’s daughter’s ceramics class work, a conversation at a wedding party casually and awkwardly switching from horrid jail stories to deluxe breast jobs, and then back again to harems, Islam, ceramics, and a Persian hair removal kit recently that the speaker recently purchased but “has yet to use.”
Dwyer is compared in a back cover presentation with Plath and Sexton, and indeed, her confessionalism and acted childishness every once in a while allows questionable traumas to surface menacingly (“my missing daughter returned by midday muted,/ having been held on a rooftop”), but the general tone is rather relaxed as she enjoys digressing and surfing her own stream of consciousness in more of an O’Harian style. The ‘wild’ surprises occasioned by language ramifications, by the dark associative power of her unconsciousness, and sometimes by multiple voices (in “Barely a Body Comes Knocking” for instance the deceitful complaint about the lack of visitors veers at a certain point into a fantastic and funny Voodoo curse against possible thieves—“And my assistant ghosts will hex your virility/ And you will sit all your remaining days/ In a rocking chair like a ceramic troll on the porch/ Of the state home in Maine for old and demented alcoholic ship builders/ Because the home for old and alcoholic sailor is full// You think I’m semiserious/ I do my best work when hypnopompic…”—) may also remind one of Ashbery, with the significant difference that Dwyer wants and manages to convey a (multiple but) coherent image of the self that is propped by the consistent pursuit of memories and dreams, and by memorable self-definitions and metaphors, “keeper of the water,” “an encyclopedia salesman,” “ a footless repairer of huaraches and boots,” etc.
The second section persistently and sometimes manically pursues possible ‘definitions’ of love, ranging from “if love is to imagine” to “if love is a door,” “a mezzanine,” “to fall,” “to inhabit,” and eventually “to be thirsty in the night/ un-slacked in the day.” Such ‘philosophical’ musings are actually as bodily and sensual as could be, and, what is absolutely remarkable in Dwyer compared to other contemporary poets, the erudite references, the mythologies and metaphysics, the asides and the detours do not slacken the passion and the emergency, but quite on the contrary, they keep mercilessly spilling fuel on the fire of the crescendos, while also adding a bite of inquisitiveness, sarcasm, and, of course, self-contradiction:
In the Louvre we saw the carved bit of ass
showing on the Venus of Milo.
Lift my dressing gown over my head,
or take it all the way down.
Look me in the eye when we make love
so I don’t mistake you for a blind man.
Don’t be afraid of my dark,
buy me a bird of my own—
spit on the candle in the corner.
“Request to a Lover”
The breathless 3 or 4-beat-per-line hurried complexities, intimations, and urges, make room at a certain point to a bluesy shorter piece, in which St Augustine (a recurrent reference, or rather character), Billie Holiday, sensuality & grimness, homelessness and glamour, death and a repressed knowledge of the spiritual powerfully converge.
A nagging question and potential problem in writing such poems would be (besides what if love were… [at all]), but how do I end this, and, if after all the deployed artillery I need a simpler or quieter ending, how can I make sure it’s not going to be flat or irrelevant. Dwyer finds good or not so good answers to this question (among the most unfortunate ones are those that go like “You are intrigued with her/ and I hate her”) until she realizes it would be better to confront and testify for the lack of any solution and the confusion itself rather than improvise single-use surrogates. That is what she does in the cosmic spectacular finale of “Bent,” the final poem in the second section, where a maddening maenad squeezes the love and… the life out of her lover, and then, a bacchant drunk on his “lake water,” she admits no reciprocity or communion in facing her own deepest uncertainty, and along with that, the demise of the sacred.
I am bent around the darkness of the sun
siphoning salt form your skin,
eating almonds from your cupboards,
drinking the last of the lake water
as the sails come to a halt on the sand.
I will never give back the lake its love!
It’s mine! It’s mine!—Loch Ness monster
or man on the shore carving canoe paddles,
I’m not certain. It’s so ark without the moon,
difficult to find the far encampment—
the inward holy body.
This last note lingers into the third section, where Dwyer directly addresses her need for a spiritualism of her own and “an instance of devotion” for the sacred madness of maverick figures like Christina Mirabilis, for instance, whom the church has kept out “of the sanctioned canon of saints on the grounds/ that you are not the beau ideal to follow,” and who, spiritually speaking, is therefore an emblematic “beau laide.”
Paradoxically, the intensification of the search for the spiritual brings about more explicit confessional or maybe even autobiographical texture, and along with that, even more popular culture and consumerist ‘flavors’ than before, while pulling back a bit from the earlier grandiose metaphorical imagery and approaching the erotic much more directly. But is that really paradoxical? Not for a poet like Dwyer, who, while taking the customary American distance from institutionalized religion is relentlessly in search for an actual experience of the sacred, for the ‘real’ ([un]canonical) thing, which, of course, once reached, cannot but illuminate (through) the profane as well.
Profane in all senses, since in one of the most powerful poems in the collection (“Down-by-the-River”), the speaker takes “a shit behind skinny oaks” and asserts (more than elsewhere) an Irish-Catholic-pagan-Gypsy-outlandish-Mexican (non-)identity (“No Identity Crisis Here” reads another relevant title), fusing a Whitmanesque celebratory union-with-the-cosmos eroticism (“I long for the lightning/ of your ejaculate in my mouth, on my breasts/ between the folds and fabric of my flower./ Call it a pussy or a cunt, or the shores of an eel-infested river”) with her unmistakable sarcasm, fierce political/gender critique and brilliantly ironic associations (“Only do not […] pretend to care about the young girls/ who open their mouths like milking machines on dairy farms,/ or take it in the ass, all to remain immaculate until marriage./ I wiped my ass with dry oak leaves, and yes it scratched.”)
The poet’s deepest and most intense purpose always keeps its promise—and therefore the last poem in the collection is indeed an eschatological poem… “of sorts.” And not in spite, but actually by means of self-irony as well (yet is this just self-irony?—“J. Dominique is certain that Christ will return soon/ […]/ as a guest at the wedding of two men madly in love/ and turn tap water into bubbly water”), the ardently mystical vibrates ever stronger, so much the more as it is (in the end as well as in the beginning) experienced strictly on a stripped corporeal level. Listen to this crossover ballad-chant-lease-like ending; there is multifaceted irony here indeed, only that it aims beyond the traditional postmodernist paradigm, while still sounding postmodern (although it is not for the first time in the book that Dwyer euphonically pairs holy and body). This is probably the greatest merit of this first collection and the major promise that Joanne Dominique Dwyer may represent:
And she’ll be ashamed for her ego-driven desire
to be listed among the holy,
and humbled into a hollow love for her body—
no matter how temporary the occupancy.