Catherine Daly: Two Moms

Dime Store Erotics, Ann Townsend
Silverfish Review Press, 1998
Paper, 76 pps., $12.95
ISBN 1-878851-11-X

Fire & Flower, Laura Kasischke
alicejamesbooks, 1998
Paper, 66 pps., $11.95
ISBN 1-882295-21-8

Kasischke and Townsend aren't writing what you may be imaging "motherhood" poems to be (is anyone?), but each has at least one child and maternal responsibilities do enter these poems which narrate personal experience.

Townsend's first book, DIME STORE EROTICS, itself a winner of the Gerald Cable Prize, collects well-published and awarded poetry, but the book itself has not been widely reviewed.

Townsend is extremely reserved as she describes her midwest of semis, fish in Woolworth's in the mall, and Trailways bus trips. Part of Townsend's gift is close observation and telling detail. The landscape is recognizable, and so contextualizes a wealth of personal experience, much unfortunate. Another poet might exploit this background melodramatically, but Townsend maintains a careful balance between colorful stories and an impersonal "present".

Part of the authority of Townsend's observations is their truth, and her deliberate attempt not to intrude as she reports. As a result, this poetry is well-aimed, on target, and I believe it.

In "At Bob Evans, the Customers Sing Along", she writes:

my practiced beige anonymity

my way of merging with a crowd.
        Each item on the inventory of my body
                has been designed to thread

firmly and ergonomically to the next.
        There are no missing pieces or loose strings
                no bright colors or broken ends.

            pps. 51-52

This particular poem does not make fun of Bob Evans, which is a popular midwestern franchise of bright red barn-shaped faux-farm themed sausage restaurants, or the customers there, without including Townsend's analysis of herself and the ways and means she is present, participating in and observing the scene.

She describes her attempt to root out flash and bang in herself, like the control she exercises over her poetry. This attempt indicates that a reading of the poetry in terms of social class might be possible or useful, albeit outside the scope of this review. In the poetry itself, this control sets up a tension between serious poetry and the melodrama mentioned in the title. This balance is maintained by her skewering humor.

Beginning with the poem "Eighteenth-Century Medical Illustration: The Infant in Its Little Room", Townsend's daughter appears in the poems as a medical problem or minor disturbance accompanied by music and insects.

Both Townsend and Kasischke write about the poet mother as a child learns language, Townsend in "First Language" (p. 61):

You say hi to the soft face
of the TV mommy

before I can see what's wrong
as you cry hi, hi, hi

here at the center of our insufficiency,
the new syllables breaking from your mouth.

and Kasischke in "The Baby Learns to Say Baby" (p. 49):

Baby he says, and I gasp
at the image
& the word
reversed in my arms.

Kasischke's third book of poetry (she has also published two novels), FIRE & FLOWER, follows WILD BRIDES and HOUSEKEEPING IN A DREAM. She has established herself as a poet working within a progression everyday mythologies from bride through relationship gender roles to motherhood. She develops a symbolism which links the poems within FIRE & FLOWER and these books to each other, telling a larger story opposing a woman's life to the typical myths of a woman's life.

Her word choice unifies the poems. She points to her keywords using ampersands and quotes. For example, the title poem, also the first poem in the book, contains the phrase "fire & flower" as well as the phrase "milk & mouths". The poem "Grey, as Flowers" contains the phrase "flowers & feathers". It is followed by an ars poetica entitled "Confections" which contains many of the key words, as well as the phrase "fire & flower". The poem "Galaxy" relates keywords as well. This type of incredibly detailed reading might seems picayune, but through repetition and a formulaic use of ampersands, Kasischke summons a set of symbols.

Milk, specifically mother's breast milk, is also Juno's breast milk which, spilled, creates the Milky Way galaxy in mythology. Stars, compared to flaming flowers, are actual mythical divinities, or as Kasischke puns:

An infant sleeping's
a milky sea. A star

is fire & flower. Divinity
is beaten out of egg whites

        "Confections", p. 16

She establishes another relationship between feathers, birds (spirituality), and unbound hair (the sign of virginity in the Renaissance) and women's youth, aging, and illness. In the poem, "Her Purse", a small white vinyl purse comes to stand for the innocence of a brutally raped and murdered girl. In the poem, she continues a contrast between real experience and television and between surviving horrifying events and writing about experience.

Kasischke's work can be usefully compared to Brenda Hillman's. Kasischke develops through her symbols a less bizarre modern religious world than Hillman does using alchemical and gnostic symbol and story. This work shares humor, joy, and wry observation with Hillman's work.

In FIRE & FLOWER, Kasischke recounts some of her thoughts on becoming a mother in poems which display a unified style. Her formal innovations are less extreme than Hillman's in LOOSE SUGAR, but in many ways they accomplish similar goals. Italicized passages can be read as a poem across the other poems, for example, beginning with "You want me", "What // do you think / about having a baby?" and "You want one" in "The Admiral" (pps. 8-9), continuing to an italicized description of sex (or very sexy cabbage description: "a knot, a swelling // under the cabbage, and a worm's / cool kiss") in "Cabbage" (p. 10) to a description of pregnancy in "Dear Air" and perhaps a description of childbirth in "Galaxy". The occasional rhyme, moved off end word, emphasizes poem main idea; and stanza breaks, including many one line stanzas, especially at the ends of poems, control pace and stress these poem ends without employing melodramatic writing.