Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Black Box by Erin Belieu

Copper Canyon Press, 2006

Reviewed by Rya Pagliughi

Erin Belieu’s newest book, Black Box, is a hurricane of pent-up anger, frustration, and sadness, but also a celebration of all things disastrous, wrong, or messy. Belieu works with raw, unfettered emotion, never allowing it to overwhelm or become maudlin. Her wry, insightful voice is a controlled tempest: turbulent, unapologetic, funny, and eminently readable. The pieces don’t head toward the morose or chaotic because the perspective is always colloquial, sardonic, approachable, and slightly vulnerable. One example is the poem “I Heart Your Dog’s Head,” where the speaker announces that, “I hate football / in a hyperbolic and clinically revealing way, / but I hate Bill Parcells more, / because he is the illuminated manuscript / of cruel, successful men, those with the slitty eyes of ancient reptiles, / who wear their smugness like a tight white turtleneck / and revel in their lack of empathy / for any living thing.” These lines function as a microcosm of the manuscript; they are thick with emotion, revealing, and funny. The opinionated speaker is never gagged, but rather allowed full reign, letting the reader ride shot-gun through the whirling text.

Broken into four sections, the book is compact and compressed, both in terms of concept and composition. It bears mentioning that the long poem, “In the Red Dress I Wear to Your Funeral” is one entire section of the book. Whereas the preceding two sections are collections of individual poems, Belieu makes a statement about the subject matter and the formal experimentations with this dynamic long poem. The fourth and final section of the book is one piece, “At Last,” that is neither as formally experimental as section three nor as conservative at section one; this hybrid strategy works well as the culmination of the text. It is a clean ending that brings the fervor of the book to an unsettling, but peaceful close.

In section one of Black Box, the poem “Last Trip to the Island,” the speaker addresses an unidentified second person. Belieu takes the changeable nature of the ocean and relates it in a curving way to the relationship taking place. She addresses this second person, telling them that, “[u]nlike your ocean, / there’s nothing sneaky about a field. I like their / ugly-girl frankness. I like that, sitting in the dirt, // I can hear what’s coming between the stalks”. The possession of “your ocean,” by default makes the field belong to the speaker. The dichotomies of your/mine and man/woman seem to reappear throughout the text. Belieu subtly personifies these elements and gives the masculine, the oceanic, the addressee, a menacing feeling. Likewise, the recurrence of apertures in the manuscript seems as ominous as the open grave that later appears. Belieu’s speaker often cites “openedmouthed”, “lips parted”, and “holes”. These fissures seem to speak to the splintered self in the wake of marital infidelity, which is clearly a central axis of the collection. Belieu’s dry humor and simple language lend a sense of immediacy to the text, and diffuses a subject matter ripe for sentimentality. In section four of the long poem, “In the Red Dress I Wear to Your Funeral,” Belieu’s cynical, vulnerable, and snarky speaker states that, “the truth doesn’t win, but it makes an appearance, / though it’s a foreign cavalry famous for bad timing and / half-assed horsemanship”. The language here isn’t elevated, academic, or difficult. Instead of feeling pedantic, these lines seem more like a maxim because of the colloquial speech and a feeling of general truth about them. The straightforwardness of these lines is what makes the poem successful--they are naked and honest, brave and smart-mouthed. Section seven of the same poem is a direct address to the lover who has recently died. At the funeral the speaker tells him,

          I was never your Intended,
          never meant to be the official widow
          like that plain, chinless girl I refused to recognize
          or comprehend.

          But the plain ones are patient, aren’t they?

          I’ll admit she earned her orchestra seats
          at this burial the old-fashioned way.


          But later, once the ladies go,
          I’ll climb down to you again.

          I’ll come to you in that dirty box
          where we’ve already slept for years,
          keeping our silent house
          under the avalanche of flowers.

It is the juxtaposition of the silence of the affair with the avalanche of flowers that makes this the most compelling of the sections. The speaker doesn’t apologize for the affair, doesn’t feel sorry for the wife, only feels sorry for the type of woman the wife is. It is in this section that Belieu most effectively uses spare language to make a complex point. In the situation of this poem, just as in life, no one is entirely faultless and no one is entirely at fault.

Belieu’s work is richly textured, formally varied, and filled with non-sentimental emotion. She handles the language well, imbuing it with strength, vulnerability, and power. Black Box is a book one can’t put down without finishing, and will come back to time and time again. Belieu uses brutal honesty to turn a series of painful experiences into a beautiful collection. Black Box is a dark indulgence, it is offensive and endearing, brash and vulnerable; it is a book with guts, heart, and a wry smile throughout.


Erin Belieu was born and raised in Nebraska and educated at the University of Nebraska, The Ohio State University, and Boston University. A former editor at AGNI, she currently serves as a contributing editor to The Kenyon Review. She has taught at Washington University, Boston University, Kenyon College, and currently teaches at Ohio University. Her book Infanta was chosen for the 1994 National Poetry Series.


Rya Pagliughi grew up on Long Island, NY. She received her Bachelor's in English Literature & Creative Writing from Binghamton University and recently finished her Master's in Creative Writing at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She currently lives in Boulder Colorado.