LUCY BIEDERMAN Reviews
Re- by Kristi Maxwell
(Ahsahta Press, Boise, ID, 2011)
The first word in Kristi Maxwell’s fantastic Re- (Ahsahta Press, 2011) is “Filleted,” a word that doubles back on itself, undoes itself, meaning as it does both bound and divided. In this there is an echo of the book’s title, with its dual and opposing implications of doing again and undoing. Re- also sounds like he and she, the two characters in the book. Those characters’ binding/division—or, to say it another way, their re(-)lationship—is the book’s primary subject.
I have only gotten as far as the first word here, but one gets the sense that nearly every word, line, piece of punctuation in this carefully constructed book, which manages to be precise and oblique at once, could be put under a magnifying glass, and a deeper, clearer, stranger meaning—with implications for the rest of the book—would emerge.
Especially in the book’s first and last cycle, Maxwell seems to be led by sound in almost the way another writer might be lead by image. Instead of describing a room that the mind’s eye can move across, from a rug to a table to a chair, Maxwell travels among similar sounds: “Gnats deconstruct / their breakfast fastidiously, feast-tediously” (7). Due to their like sounds, breakfast becomes—or is exposed as— a tedious feast.
The book is filleted into four “cycles,” the first of which, “(Action/Figure),” seems based around the question, What is the place of one’s body when one’s life is about language? The uneasy balance between the lives these this couple leads in language and their physical lives is one of the concerns here. As Maxwell puts it, “they’ve been known to tighten mauve corsets / too tightly against the bosom of their speech” (10). Language presses against their bodies, and their bodies seem to fade from their own corporeality and into language even as they are described. At the beginning of the cycle, Maxwell writes,
For she has wet her face has wedded her pores to the Great Lakes
in this map of her face as part of the upper states
he wades through with his gazing.
Is not her due morpheme-gashed, meaning
meaning leans toward her
but barely. (2)
Here, her face quickly dissolves into lake, his gazing, and ultimately into bits of language to be parsed for meaning. It feels like for this couple (or maybe for every couple), language is the destination that a physical place like the Great Lakes could only pretend to be. But once the couple arrive, meaning is only “barely” present.
These themes are backgrounded in the second cycle, “(Enter/Veer/Confirm),” in which the couple take a journey on a “boat built entirely / of home” (17). In this cycle, centered on notions of ceremony—words like occasion, performance, commitment, and formal (even sometimes out of context) imply a wedding—our he and she feel most bound, least divided. Sometimes here, even the natural world seems to be under their spell: “The progress of their leisure was such / that they cancelled noon concealed it within a cloudy beaker” (19). Later, “They bettered the yard with trees weeping rope” (22).
I read trouble in the relationship in the third cycle, “(Configure/Filter).” Phrases like this suggest that something indefinable is wrong between them: “They swooned / at the times that wooed them toward wrenching / yet retched each time tips reached their heads” (31). There are leave-taking words on nearly every page of this cycle: words like breach, distance, strays, exits, and apart. One of the pages begins, “Could not / he have made for the dinner plates / placemats out of prayer” (36). To my ear this sounds like an accusation aimed at him, voiced by her—phrased as it is, negatively—could not—driving home her disappointment and frustration. On the following page, we get what is perhaps his perspective on her: “his frontal lobe suppers on posies off an oddly- / poised crow’s left wing. She’s nearby and not. Near bye, she has torn seeing out of her / iris.” The couple feels divided rather than bound; he versus she. With his posies and crow’s wing supper, ignoring his dinner-plate and placemat duties, he seems to have shirked his responsibilities, and she, while physically present, has given up “seeing [him?].”
In the final cycle, “(Coat/Verb/Touch),” the couple takes a trip. This section includes several pages that to my mind could stand alone as individual poems. For example, the brilliant consideration of bees, which, Maxwell writes, “know their product / so concretely they need neither names / for themselves nor it, thus fitting / bees are phoneme-twinned to the verb / ‘I,’ who is instantaneously he and she” (51). This meditation recalls the first cycle’s focus on language—and it deepens and complicates my experience of that cycle, suggesting that perhaps part what is difficult about being in a heterosexual couple is that awareness/self-consciousness that one of you is a he and one a she. This section also contains some of the most beautiful lyric passages in the book. For example, “Rouge sups the cheekbone as lounging sups the spine. O, / howl their hands, laced with that chance of having” (52). Or, “Where need hides single file / foreshadows with her fate imbedded there” (46).
None of the poems in Re- have titles, besides the cycle titles, which, because they are parenthesized, feel whispered, dimmer than typical section titles. Contributing to that sense is how elliptical they are. It is possible to read the prefix re- into each word in the cycle titles; rather than providing clarity (of narrative, say, or context), that additional set of meanings casts a whole new set of shadows across each cycle. This wonderful book is filled with many such elegant challenges to and opportunities for making and unmaking meaning. What I like most about it is its fresh, stripped down, virtually toneless honesty about romantic relationships—how to the people inside it, a relationship can, minute-to-minute, teeter between meaning nothing and meaning everything.
Lucy Biederman (http://lucybiederman.blogspot.com/) is a doctoral student in English Literature at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette. She is the author of a chapbook, The Other World (Dancing Girl Press, 2012). Her poems have appeared recently or are forthcoming in The Literary Review, Parcel, RHINO, Ping Pong, ILK, Shampoo, and Gargoyle.