(Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2019)
Sharply contemporary and certainly urbane, Rebecca Hazelton’s third collection of poems, Gloss, balances a candor with, as one might expect from a collection named for a quality of appearances, an appreciation for the surfaces of things. The poems refract the cover art photograph: a feminine visage faces the camera with a clear, white complexion as her thumb smears her ruby red lipstick from her lips. Indeed the book’s epigraph, a quote by ex-patriot American portrait painter John Singer Sargent, speaks to the image, too: “A portrait is a painting with a little something wrong about the mouth.” The quote is a little ticklish. Just what does it mean to have “a little something wrong about the mouth”? What does it mean for a poet, in particular, to have something wrong with her mouth? As Hazelton performs a balancing act between speaking with candor and painting shiny surfaces, she navigates the complexities of love and sex from a femme perspective with an eye toward revealing what lies below the surfaces. But how can she do that and remain true to the surface, too? It’s as if she challenged her own wry, postmodern self to let down her intellectual guard and let all the dirty-sexy truth be revealed.
The first section of the book, “Adaptations,” displays Hazelton’s willingness to entertain love in a contemporary milieu. Unlike the “Hold back the edges of your gowns, Ladies, we are going through hell” introduction William Carlos Williams wrote to prepare the genteel literary world for what Allen Ginsberg had in store for them in Howl and Other Poems, we get the emailed-texted-snapchatted version of dirt and swingers and domestic intrigues and personal hells. A painful delight Nietzsche might enjoy.
The section opens wide from the start with a sexy ditty, “Group Sex.” The window into Hazelton’s imagination intrigues as she welcomes us into the suburban underground playground. The poem begins with a self-conscious second person couple observing the other couple’s physical perfections: “both of these like both of you but better — / poreless skin, flushed lips, hairless where convenient.” The surface appearance of the naughty little tableau, the look of things and the actions, reveal so little that the speaker is thrown back into herself in doubt (or could it be a himself? Or are we locked into a female heterosexual world here?):
The other him, the one who never forgets to roll the garbage can
to the curb the night before pickup, he would never let his right eye
droop upon climax, he would never smack your bottom afterwards
and say, “Good horse.”
Thus, the surface pushed them back into themselves. What appeared to be pleasure only provided clammy hands. As the speaker continues to stare at them, the speaker falls into a repose, outside of the action, “You could watch the two of them all day — those toned limbs.” By the end of the poem, the speaker has nearly fallen out of the scene into altogether more innocent fantasy after she has realized her own desires and shortcomings for her relationship:
you could watch her raise her hands to touch his face, softly,
as if she cannot believe he shaved for her,
as if there’s only just the two of them in the world now.
It’s as if the speaker cannot enjoy the moment enough to lose herself in it and so stares at the couple, but then cannot even enjoy watching enough to remain in the slick pleasures of surfaces and must romanticize instead. Is Hazelton suggesting that we are doomed to always want something else? So much for love. Is this the life we are living in the here and now of the here and now or just this here and this now? Sounds about right to me.
The book’s middle section, “Counterfeits,” presents the intrigues of falsities. In “Trying Fourleggedness,” the poet imagines a drawing with a heterosexual pairing: “The boy and the girl were mostly gesture.” Before long, the girl gains some agency but quickly loses it:
If the girl wants to be a horse
she need only to walk into the outline of one
and line up her body with the chest. We’ll fill in
the rest, and before you know it, she’s a natural.
It’s hard not to think that a poem that leans so heavily on the theoretical is not merely a theory, merely a speculation of a reality rather than a reflection of it. It then raises the concern that the poem, like so many contemporary poems, wanders into the territory of social theory rather than an appreciation of beauty or truth or a reflection of a compelling experience. While its concerns certainly remain timeless, the tone turns stale: “When she tosses her head, he mocks up a bridle. / He mocks her. A bridle for a bride, he says,” but then Hazelton deftly spins her rhetoric once more and opens up the dialectic in less predictable ways “…which doesn’t seem like what little boys say, / but he wasn’t so little, and she didn’t run away.” Well well well, now it’s gotten complex and quite a bit delicious.
The final section of the book, “Self-Portraits,” twists and distorts its portraits to blend the self with other and the self with environment in ways that speak to Picasso’s Cubist perspectives. Where Picasso required his viewers to see one subject via different perspectives, Hazelton encourages her readers to see multiple subjects through one portrait. This inversion of perspectives and subjects engenders an otherness that, while a bit less fun to read due to Hazelton’s theoretical eagerness, embeds a regard for otherness in her rhetoric. It is an interesting formal choice.
In these poems Hazelton allows her reader mere glimpses into an interiority while maintaining the slick surfaces of her poems. It seems that by having to balance the self with some other subject on the surface of her poems, she has less energy to commit to expressing the self within. “Self-Portrait as Thing in the Forest” exemplifies her challenge. The poem describes the “thing” as “two women / in the mess of one body” and goes on to collage together the self and the thing in a puzzling juxtaposition of competing women and desires and the predator/prey paradigm — all somehow set in Florida. The self really punches through this mélange of imagery and concept in the final three lines and makes a damn good attempt at unifying it all in an epigrammic final sentence:
A desire uncurbed
is a flagrant thing, is a woman,
in the mirror, seeing clearly.
It’s an admirable attempt. Like any good poet, she attempts to capture that which has no interest in being captured with any reasoned language. Her candor really shines through here. The poem suggests that this cobbled-together image of the self is the self seen clearly. Perhaps that is why the gloss is so favorable after all. Or is that the best we get in this here and this now when we are all refracted through social media?
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PK Eriksson is a poet, critic, and English teacher from Chicago. PK loves this life, Earth, and the intimacies words sing. PK’s poems and reviews have appeared in 100 Words, The Santa Fe New Mexican, Quail Belle, among other publications. @pkeriksson10 for twitter.