(Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2014)
“Sun’s yoke a greasy sputter in morning’s blue Teflon.”
Lee Ann Roripaugh opens her poem “Trompe l’Oeil: The Annotated Version” with these words, which I read as I sit at a diner down the road, the one with wood-panel walls like my grandmother’s house in the Northwoods and the greasy but to-die-for kitchen-sink omelet. When I’m lucky, the chef is rocking out to an amalgam of Chopin and The Ramones. The walls are always covered in tchotchkes, and the reading shelf in the corner holds a handful of literary classics. This is a diner that blends the sentimental with the dilapidated, fuses pop culture with the unusual, and although my math is shoddy, I’d wager there’s a 30/70 chance the barista has a PhD. Some diners call this place kitschy, but I see it as a place of wonder, where nothing is quite what it seems. In a way, the restaurant space is not unlike the world of the Dandarians; although the planet of Dandar is certainly more refined than my neighborhood hole-in-the-wall, both are conscious semblances, and Roripaugh brings us to hers in an impressively hip-yet-literary fourth collection of poetry.
Not unlike the diner’s walls, Roripaugh’s multifaceted work blends Broadway, science-fiction, literary fiction, and more. In “Skywriting,” for example, Roripaugh illustrates a “tiny pale-green caterpillar” that lowers herself “down like a deus ex machina”:
She comes down like a showgirl in the Ziegfeld Follies straddling a glittering sliver of moon.
She comes down like the Borg Queen in Star Trek—all talking head and flippant shiny vertebrae on smooth, computerized hydraulics.
Glaxo… Kreemo… Toffee… What to make of her?
“Glaxo… Kreemo… Toffee…” is an allusion to the airplane skywriting scene of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, within which spectators attempt to decipher and discuss the message in the clouds. Similarly, Roripaugh’s poem, like her collection, calls us to not only ponder our understanding of our surroundings, including the miniature details such as caterpillars, but also our attempts, and perhaps ultimate inability, to communicate these interpretations.
The poem “Senchimental” is titled after the Japanese mother’s pronunciation of centimeter as she measures and knits; she counts out each “senchimental (sen-chee-mental), which sounds much like sentimental.” These words stand as an organic introduction to a daughter’s exploration of sentimentality and, ultimately, love. Roripaugh writes, “My mother’s knitting needles are gleaming and sharp. Her tongue is even sharper. // I confuse love with knitting.”
On this note, Roripaugh explores two giant, gaudy brontosaurs, which she encounters on the side of a road. She explains:
I knit them into a poem. I call them ‘corny and improbable.’ I accuse them of being ‘oblivious to the fact of their own extinction.’ Is it obvious that I am quite taken with them, nonetheless?
It is, perhaps, no accident that this is a poem in which the speaker is unsure about whether or not she is running away from something, or running toward it.
One senchimental. Two senchimental. Three senchimental.
Dissociative devices, like the inclusion of these tawdry creatures and use of the third person, are fundamental to the success of this luminous confessional collection. They allow us to sit and stay a while in an environment that otherwise might be too uncomfortable. In the diner, my observations move beyond the tacked-up neon rope lighting and the outrageous taxidermy to notice the chipped tile flooring and water-stained countertop. And I wonder what it all means.
The poet employs many such distancing techniques. As we delve deeper into the heart of Dandarians, the poem “Femanint” – titled after the Japanese mother’s mispronunciation of the word feminine – heartbreakingly details the occasion when the first person narrator’s much-older neighbor sexually assaults her. But this disturbing recollection unravels in the stanzas that follow, which detail a more humorous explanation of her using tampons for swim team, and her mother’s insistence that “only women who are mucktrucks use tampons.” Roripaugh writes, “I don’t know what she means. Later, I realize she’s been calling my vagina a Mack Truck. She bursts into tears. You too young to have baby! she yells at me.” While this narrative is mostly quite distressing, the nuance of humor halts a potential heavy-handedness.
Roripaugh’s ethos is important to the collection. As a reader, I trust her. The speaker is conversational yet intellectual, honest yet humble, and, again, funny: “I think dandelions are Dandarians. Dan-dare-ee-uns. Futuristic, alien—like something named after late-night B-movie space creatures from an undiscovered planet.” Despite the mass appeal of many of the collection’s items and characters, Dandarians isn’t kitschy; it’s real. It allows for feelings of intense sadness or even nostalgia, without any sort of repelling bathos. Roripaugh recalls, “At home, because it seems important, I pass this secret knowledge on to my mother: ‘You have to say dandy,’ I tell her. ‘Then say lion.’ / Her slap flares a sung handprint on my cheek like alien handprints in the TV show Roswell.”
This planet of Dandar is tangible and complicated; it requires its visitors to ponder difficult subjects. While Dandarians seems to be specifically about Ropripaugh’s upbringing as a mixed-ethnicity child, this is also the vessel within which we may explore communication, feminism, pop culture, and even our own unique brands of sentimentality. On the other hand, there’s something comforting about drinking hot organic coffee from a kittens-in-sweaters mug, while reading a Japanese haibun that closes with, “This is my ray gun. // Do you know the Secret Code?” …don’t you think?
The line “Sun’s yoke a greasy sputter in morning’s blue Teflon” contains a footnote: “There are, needless to say, regrets. It should have been whisked into a breathless froth. How else to scramble the losses? To caramelize the still-drunk sky?” In this highly imagistic line, Roripaugh clearly contemplates much more than just the sun, and proves that she will be a solicitous guide through this complicated world.
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Heather Lang is the Managing Online Editor for The Literary Review.