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Human Nature
by Alice Anderson
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That Holy Ceremony of Self
Review by Larissa Szporluk

Alice Anderson and Joseph Lease are two young poets whose first books appeared within the last year. Superficially the books are worlds apart, Anderson's glaring with the mark of a well-endowed publisher, its provocative glossy photograph trespassing the book's edges, while Lease's matte cover is plainly elegant, a simple but swirling abstract design confined to the center. The differences don't stop there. These two poets, born within five years of each other, may be depicting the families, childhood, streets and houses of the same America, but where and how they choose to stand to do so is wildly unrelated. The first indication of this discordance lies in Anderson's dedication: "For Sharon Olds." While Human Nature is not entirely "Oldsian," its sensibilities are undeniably akin: the subjective focus on the father, the overtly feminine themes, the abundance of sexual description, as well as the self-obsessed sexual identity of the speaker. Lease dedicates The Room to no one; this is his book. Lease sets out to reconcile the strange humility of being alive: "We feel so much pleasure/that I'm afraid" ("Crystal Rock"). In another poem, "New World," the humility deepens into humiliation: "They stood on the shore,/or we picture them/standing on the shore./They mistook us for gods. We are not/the us in that sentence/we insist, we beg." Compare Anderson, whose achievement is defiance: "...Searching there/in the silence of my thighs, that holy ceremony of self:/I was shameless. There were weeks I did it seven days;/there were days I did it in every light..." ("Communion"), and, in a mind-boggling poem about race, from the point of view of a girl who lived on a reservation: ....And at midnight
ten men came from town, taking their turns. Ten little, nine

little, eight little indians stood in a circle and fucked me.
Four little, three little, two little drunk men, and one little

blond haired girl. And the men said, She likes it!
and didn't leave for hours, many bottles, until I began

to chant my name. Ne-heh Shlo-owa. Ne-heh Shlo-owa.

"Ceremony of Light: writers' conference, 1992"

I was disturbed to find myself racing through Human Nature with the twisted curiosity of a teenager. The opening poem, "The Split," probably the most successful of the poems, reveals the tragic psychological premise of the entire volume: the speaker is the victim of sexual abuse by the father: "It rises in you like that—thick and lukewarm as your father's skin./The taste inches up but you keep skating, try to make the circles/perfect and small, try to smell the beefsteaks on the barbeque..." To what extreme the abuse goes is made brutally clear by the fifth poem, "What the Night Is Like": ...It's like standing naked
before your father when you're five, that moment you start to spread
your legs and smile. It's knowing you're going to bleed the night before
you begin to bleed. It's like that, almost."

Human Nature escalates into a frenzy of highly charged rehashings of the speaker's torn childhood. In a poem set at a sixth graders' slumber party, during a game of "Questions", the speaker realizes that her questions are those of lived experience, not composed as the others' to be shocking, but composed as revelations of her difference: What do you think it is like? Would you put ever put a penis
in your mouth? Who do you think is on top, your mom or dad?

I am usually on top and he pulls me does he? back and forth
across him like a washboard, bruising me so bad it hurts

to play tetherball the next day. Sometimes he does do you? put it in
my mouth, so deep I can barely talk..."

"Answers"

Such poems force the reader into the role of voyeur, not necessarily because of the clinical detail, but because of the absence of emotional perspective. This is the cold, cinematic world of Bret Easton Ellis, of MTV, of Natural Born Killers.

In the book's closing section, the speaker uses this toneless tone to describe a fight with her lover, which gets resolved in the following manner: ...And I closed
my eyes as the blindfold cinched. And the blackness felt

like relief. I stood up and I let you take me from behind.
I let you walk me across the floor, blindly, in the heels
you brought me, and do it like that in the window, facing
the neighbors on Tenth through the alley of trees..."

"The Fight"

Anderson's book leaves me in limbo: Are these poems powerful because the family is so mystifyingly deranged, the mother conceding to the abuse, the daughter chillingly nonchalant, or are the poems powerful because they're poetry? Or is power power, never mind the source, never mind the stamina? As usual, the answer lies somewhere in between. The poems in Human Nature are well-written. The details are startling and precise. The situations are clear. This is a damaged life, but the damage is conquerable. It is also a life teeming with sexuality, a life scarred by the continuum of violence. But the poems, with a few exceptions, read like prose. The lines are never felt distinctly. They're read left to right and down, left to right and down; none of the language juts out. Nothing sticks, save for the faintly sick feeling of having observed something horrendous, of having done nothing to stop it, of having treated it purely as show.

The subject matter of The Room is too expansive to coin. The opening poem, "Hammer," reveals a voice of fragmented but quiet anguish: "What you fear came true/Years ago./" Phenomena are thrown out at the reader like objects: "Snow, rain, sun, nails/; Broken, fateful, cold."/ The tone is large, but cautious. Lease relies on the resonance of lists ("The Sun Threshes, Seed Rains, A Cord of Wet Wood" as a title); the strange and exhilarating connections between sounds: "...Passport: sun and moon,/Apples, fish; no one will kill you." ("Petition"); and, in what I think is one of the best poems ever to appear in a first book, the power of mythic intervention: the third time he burned the town
his fingers were filled with
white chrysanthemums

the first time he burned the town
he hated himself
and he hated the town

the second time he burned the town
he loved himself
though he hated the town

there was no third time he burned the town

"Michael Kohlhaas"

Lease's variety of experimentation attests to his astonishing talent—his mind is as curious and alive one could hope it to be; that is, in spite of his insistence that "I am too simple, I flatten/These words and these sounds/Destroyed by my voice, a fraud/Talking into the heat." ("The Room, iv")

In their own way, these two distinct authors and their books are amazing. The Room emerges as a spiral of linguistic and lyrical transcendence, ("Wave hello,/turn into shimmering footprints, dust my broom/and the whole outstanding tale." —"Footloose Radish..."), Human Nature as a fine soldier of the Olds school, distinguishable for its unique survival strategy in the most brutal of zones. The high quality of force as exemplified by these poets suggests that perhaps the next few years of contemporary American poetry will bring to the surface more such extraordinary diverseness, diverseness comprised of those works whose authors are faithful to art and are not just riding the wave of an empty trend. It may or may not be relevant to conclude with the single overlapping moment of Human Nature and The Room. Towards the end of the latter, in a poem called "Marathon House," Lease highlights the following incident: I was sitting on the steps of the cathedral of St. John the Divine. A
woman in a torn fur coat and a wig came up to me. In a second I no-
ticed all her fingers were stumps.

Interestingly enough, Anderson's poem "The Mark" is an account of a childhood friend whose two middle fingers are missing, presumably due to the punitive fury of her father. The poem examines the speaker's envy of the girl with missing fingers, how she "...would always have that plain distinction, and I never would. What/ever I could do to myself would never be so beautiful./What I'd endured would never shine like that." One might say that Joseph Lease is the poet who knows what to notice while Alice Anderson is the one who suggests why.


Larissa Szporluk lives and works in Cambridge, MA. A collection of her poetry will be out from Graywolf Press in Spring 1996.

©1997. Boston Book Review. All rights reserved.
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