Monday, March 23, 2009

The Cosmopolitan by Donna Stonecipher

Coffee House Press, 2008
Reviewed by Kristina Marie Darling

Recently selected by John Yau for inclusion in the National Poetry Series, Donna Stonecipher's The Cosmopolitan presents a vision of travel that encompasses an exploration of one's surroundings as well as the discovery of new terrain within one's self. Written as ornate prose poem sequences in which quotes from other texts are often embedded, the works in this volume use their hybrid form to document the emotional and intellectual states that are evoked by place. Just as the miniature travelogues are structured around newly unearthed insights, Stonecipher's poems gracefully depict one's inner life as governing the ways one inhabits the world.  

In conveying these themes, Stonecipher's use of such diverse texts as Franz Kafka's The Trial, Claude Levi-Strauss's Tristes Tropiques, and Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus to illuminate her own work proves striking. Frequently presenting the reader with memorable quotes arrived at through various author's literary allusions, the poems offer their speakers' small epiphanies as literary journeys in themselves. A poem entitled "Inlay 2 (Elaine Scarry)," which uses text from Scarry's Dreaming by the Book, exemplifies this trend:

If only our troubles were those of the town planner. Our freshly prepared grid, where to position the park, the town hall, the elementary school, the bored housewife fucking the plumber? The town is a given. The town waits like a fate for the town planner, who slowly reveals it with a blue pencil.

'Daydreaming originates in the volitional' (15).

In this passage, the poet presents Elaine Scarry's statement as an insight arrived at through a journey of intellectual inquiry, suggesting that travel remains a dialogue between oneself and the literary and cultural texts evoked by a given place. As the piece unfolds, this travelogue of consciousness ultimately obscures the reader's ability to definitively locate the speaker, privileging one's ability to trace oneself emotionally and intellectually.

Likewise, other works in The Cosmopolitan question the extent to which one can journey through the world without unearthing an undiscovered aspect of self. In this respect, the poet establishes reciprocity between one's inner life and surroundings. She writes, for example, in "Inlay 6 (Mary B. Campbell),"

The group of students touring Chartres was told by the bespectacled guide that the stained glass pictures were not merely pretty, but actually scripture for the illiterate. Years later, one of the students would remember this while reading at a desk facing a window and think: What beauty isn't born out of the missionary position? (29)

Here Stonecipher forges unexpected connections between the character's memory of the cathedral and the manner in which he or she perceives future works of art. In many ways, the poet suggests that the character's past experience of Chartres enables and validates later insights about beauty and artifice. Like other works in the collection, "Inlay 6 (Mary B. Campbell)" depicts one's experience of place as complicating one's experience of self, suggesting that the two remain, in some respects, inextricable.

Moreover, Stonecipher uses this complex relationship between oneself and one's surroundings to offer incisive cultural commentary, highlighting the dissonance between one's inner life and the exterior world. Frequently juxtaposing the narrator's intellectual journeys with an increasingly commercialized travel culture, the poet often hints that a lucrative industry resides behind many individual's desire for such introspection and self discovery. She explains, for instance, in "Inlay 12 (Owen Jones),"

One loved; one did not love; goods changed hands. She was looking for the seed pearl dropped off the scale in the middle of the vast outdoor market. At the airport, he reached into his bag for his cyanometer — which of the fifty different kinds of blue was this particular sky? (50)

In this selection, just as the character in the poem attempts to empirically determine "which of the fifty different kinds of blue" that the sky is that day, characters recur throughout The Cosmopolitan who treat the world as a "conquerable entity," which can be subjugated through travel. Although acknowledging the prevailing (and frequently consumerist) approach to exploring one's surroundings, Stonecipher depicts her narrator as still "looking for the seed pearl" that has been lost amidst the commercial fanfare, striking an optimistic chord with the reader.

All points considered, Donna Stonecipher's new book is a meditative, philosophical read. The Cosmopolitan refashions the time-honored form of the prose poem while raising fascinating questions about travel and self-discovery. Highly recommended.


Donna Stonecipher is the author of three books of poetry: The Reservoir (Georgia, 2002), Souvenir de Constantinople (Instance, 2007), and The Cosmopolitan (Coffee House, 2008). She also translates poetry and prose from French and German.


Kristina Marie Darling is a graduate student at Washington University in St. Louis. Eight chapbooks of her work have been published, among them Fevers and Clocks (March Street Press, 2006), The Traffic in Women (Dancing Girl Press, 2006), and Night Music (BlazeVOX Books, 2008). A two-time Pushcart Prize nominee, Kristina has also written on contemporary literature for The Boston Review, The Colorado Review, New Letters, The Mid-American Review, Third Coast, and other journals. Recent awards include residencies at the Vermont Studio Center and the Mary Anderson Center for the Arts.

Monday, March 09, 2009

The Halo Rule by Teresa Leo

Elixir Press, 2008
Reviewed by Amy Schrader

Given the lush stained-glass art on the cover of this volume of poems, I was relieved to learn in an opening epigraph that The Halo Rule is not a new age directive for living, but rather a sports term. The title poem tells us that the halo rule “intends to protect/ a return man by two yards.” Indeed, this rule—in effect from 1983-2003 in NCAA football games—gave a two-yard circle of protection to punt returners. The idea was to save the returner—who must look up in order to catch the ball—from a jarring full-speed tackle. Leo’s poignant observation follows:

Not so
elsewhere. For us, it’s

sideswipe, no berth, the
deference of play to hurt,
rough lust. (19)

Indeed, in this collection, Teresa Leo writes not about the spiritual, but the physical — the violence that “rough lust” enacts on our bodies and minds, and the ways that our biological urges can (and will) destroy us without hesitation or warning. Desire is the primary concern of The Halo Rule, and appears in most of the poems in some way, even if only to mark its absence or its transmutation into a closely allied urge or feeling such as despair. Recurring tropes here are addiction, possession, hunger, and the color red — all common metaphors for sexual desire. Incendiary images are numerous:

The kiss, if not gasoline, then turpentine, // or two red peonies in a cardboard tube… (4)

I won’t say I’m fire and in it… (4)

“…Come find me at night // and we’ll go up in flames.” (37)

…you said my hair was a creature
unto itself, a dark and dangerous thing
that could set the world on fire. (42)

Leo divides her book into four sections, each of which examines a particular phase of a sexual relationship. The narrative arc of the book begins with the end, and the first poem we encounter is entitled “P.S.”

The end is not near. We’ve passed the end, and it’s so far back
it’s like the tit of a cow in a field of poppies, a dot in a field…

Not only are we already at the end, we’re long past it! Appropriately enough, Section I deals with the final throes of a turbulent relationship: “We’re flatlined, sandblasted, / pummeled, untoward (12).” We meet two lovers, each seized in some way by sexual addiction and violence. There are glasses thrown against the wall, punches, jabs, chokeholds, “come-heres and fisticuffs (6).”

Section II takes us back to the beginning of this relationship with a series of poems about a modern Narcissus, poems exploring the chase, seduction, the art of wooing, and, of course, self-love. Yet even as the two lovers are meeting for the first time, Leo calls out a warning: “The woman // stood and turned. He was already thinking/ of the beautiful and various ways he could leave her (21).”

In Section III, we see the two lovers in the middle of their relationship, and their dynamic is clearly about sex and not much else:

After we fuck, he comes to himself,
back from a scattering of parts and phrases,

pulled from a starkness too violent to remember
(though fragments jostle in the back of the eyes

in a furious attempt to make it)
and says, “I can’t do more than this.” (41)

Finally, Section IV brings us back to where we started, forcing the reader to experience for a second time the couple’s goodbyes and leavings. The last poem in the book, “Aubade”, is a fitting end, bringing us full circle to dawn—a signal that the lovers must now part.

As I read the book, I found myself wondering if Leo strove for such unwavering thematic content; it feels more as if she happened on it incidentally, organically. As a poet, I understand the drive to write our obsessions again and again. By the end, however, I had more of a reader’s-eye view of how consistency can become slightly tedious over the course of an entire book. Pair that consistency with Leo’s fairly uniform (albeit very well-crafted) poetic style/approach, and there could very well be a little bit of reader-fatigue by the end of the collection.

That said, even if I occasionally found myself wanting a poem that looked or sounded just a little different than the others, Leo’s obsessions happen to mirror my own, so I was more than happy to immerse myself in the dark minutiae of this unraveling sexual relationship. The strength of the book lies in the strength of the individual poems. They are well-crafted, and Leo clearly delights in language and well-turned phrases. One of her techniques is to simultaneously present two conflicting realities:

...the way I didn’t see the curve ball coming,
the one that clipped my left hip as I swung the bat,
missing and not being missed. (3)

…the long, slow torso of a woman bent back, seeing / and not being seen. (6)

Thus, the reader must consider both x and not-x; they are somehow both equally true. This is what good poetry should be able to do, to look at the many facets of a complicated situation and recognize the truth of them all. Similarly, Leo is interested in adjacencies, which strikes me as an interest in metaphor.

…How, if at all,
does adjacency fit in, the militant but not mindful,

his four: lust, luster, lash, then less and less…
my four: drugged, deranged, demonized, damaged. (27)

This type of sound-association also shows up in the book as near-rhymes separated by slashes, which is a sort of violent, unvarnished way of making comparisons. Without putting the words into a full sentence, Leo mushes two words together, puts them on equal footing, and leaves it to the reader to draw conclusions from their proximity. One of the poems describes this method as “the bereft/theft rhyme of desire and seizure” (26). Throughout the book, Leo also gives us baroque/throat (22), read/delete (24), famine/feminine (28), and

the estranged/deranged
call and response,

off-key, off-kilter,
an intersection of streets

where Wood meets Division,
Hope meets Power,

the mute improvisations
of a love-sick blood. (68)

Since this collection had the occasional tendency toward repetition and the “expected” view, I particularly enjoyed the off-key notes in The Halo Rule. Ultimately, the poems’ physical presence and honesty allows us to appreciate the collection for what it is:

…Just a book of poems

in a stark white envelope, little disclosures
that sway into oblivion the way bamboo floor boards
give suddenly under the body, its weight. (28)


Teresa Leo's poetry and essays have appeared in The American Poetry Review, Poetry, Ploughshares, New Orleans Review, Barrow Street, Painted Bride Quarterly, Xconnect, and elsewhere. She has been a resident at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Blue Mountain Center, and the Vermont Studio Center, and has received fellowships from the Pew Fellowships in the Arts, the Leeway Foundation, and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. She currently works at the University of Pennsylvania.


Amy Schrader received her MFA in poetry from the University of Washington. Her poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming from Fairy Tale Review, DIAGRAM, and Filter. She lives in Seattle.