V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics

Review of Kathleen Flenniken's Book of Poetry




Barely concealed beneath these considerations of our
 avoidance or pursuit of fame is the ironic implication
of a pre-written script. No foolish consistency for this poet.
Now we have complication, thematic complexity.
Now we have a collection that stirs the intellect.

Kathleen Flenniken must have thought 2005 was her own anno mirabilis. First she won a National Endowment for the Arts Literary Fellowship, a rare achievement for a poet without a book. That gap, however, was soon filled when she won the prestigious Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry. Everyone knows that poetry book contests are highly competitive, some attracting as many as 1000 entries. The odds of winning are slim, and yet someone wins. How? Why this book and not those others? A close look at Flenniken’s Famous might reveal some answers.
    Famous  is initially distinguished by its organizational integrity. Flenniken gives us not merely a bunch of good poems but a collection of them, that is, poems artistically arranged into a unified whole. She divides her fifty-one poems into three sections: "Minor Characters," "Minor Celebrities," and "Fame." As these headings suggest, her overarching concern is our tenuous relationship to fame. In the very first poem, “The League of Minor Characters,” she speaks as if we are all reading the same novel and asserts that when we learn of the bad things that happen to the main character “most of us / decide to remain minor characters // … / because the main character, in the thrall / of a relentless plot, can’t help hurtling toward / the crumbling cliff edge. And who needs that?”  And yet, in “Sotto Voce” Flenniken asks, “Aren’t all of us / waiting to be discovered?” How true that question rings and how profoundly human. Then, “like a hard head of cabbage,” comes another truth: fame is elusive and exclusive; most of us won’t have it, most of us won’t sing the aria, but will remain just part of the chorus. Isn’t this kind of insight and honesty something we ought to expect from a prize winner?
    Something else we might expect is the poet’s ability to view her subject from different perspectives. At times Flenniken leaves the panoramic view and gets up close and personal. In “Preservation” the speaker accompanies a group of third graders to a history museum. The children stand in front of the stuffed figure of Bobo, a once-famous gorilla. When they are told that years ago he was alive, they fall silent. The speaker’s memory drifts, “long enough to remember // you left me four weeks ago yesterday, / a rubber band snap to my inner cranium / for the thousandth time today.” Towards the end of the poem, Flenniken risks a change in point of view. Instead of talking about the gorilla, the speaker now talks to him: “Bobo, do you understand the impulse?” — that is, our need to hold onto those we care about. Flenniken ends the poem with a bit of strategic grammatical ambiguity: “The last time I saw him, he was alive,” but we can’t be sure who that “he” is — gorilla or the person who left her four weeks ago? More points from the judges for taking risks. Another point for taking risks that work.
    Barely concealed beneath these considerations of our avoidance or pursuit of fame is the ironic implication of a pre-written script. No foolish consistency for this poet. Now we have complication, thematic complexity. Now we have a collection that stirs the intellect. In “The International House of Pancakes” the speaker nervously says, “I’ve got a reservation at the hospital next door / which I’m pretending is a Ramada, / that I’m just another jittery traveler . . ..” However, the trip only “feels intentional.” In “Gil’s Story” Gil tells a new employee the story of the death of his child. The other employees already know the story; it’s what’s made Gil famous. They know how Gil’s wife and daughter switched places in the vacation camper. They know Gil’s manner of telling the story, “his careful introduction of the boy / who has drifted an entire lifetime / into their oncoming lane. It’s beautiful // really, the way they crash into the boy’s / car, how it parts the boy’s curtain / of long blond hair and death anoints him . . ..”
    To the central idea of fame, Flenniken skillfully links a constellation of related motifs. Several poems deal with the alphabet, writing, or language. These poems logically connect to others about reading, a motif introduced in “The League of Minor Characters.” In “Murder Mystery” the speaker, while reading a novel, imagines herself as the detective, then more excitingly as the criminal as she ponders the question of what we want from life. From novels Flenniken moves to biographies. In “My Mother’s Biographies” she lists the famous lives her mother read about and tells us that as a child she tried to enter those lives as her mother must have.
    Then Flenniken takes the imaginative leap — and surely this is another quality of a winner — and enters another person’s skin, moving from book to the life itself. In the wonderful “To Ease My Mind” she imagines what it must have been like to be Mary Todd Lincoln, married to a famous president but often belittled for being frivolous while her country was at war. Flenniken concludes that in the presence of so much death and devastation she herself might act no differently: " . . . perhaps I too / would turn my mind to the pleasures // of kidskin gloves adorned with pearls, / …. // I might need box upon box upon box of them / to tell me who I am.” Empathy. Compassion. Wisdom. And thematic coherence as we return to the central question: do we really want to be famous?
    This collection exhibits another quality that must have impressed the judges: range. We see this in the variety of characters Flenniken parades throughout the poems — famous people and obscure, historical and contemporary, real and fictional. She includes those who have themselves achieved a degree of fame, for example, the biblical Eve, violinist Sarah Chang, chimpanzee researcher Jane Goodall, and Madge, the manicurist from the old Palmolive tv commercial. Flenniken also includes several literary figures. In “One Night” fiction writer Shirley Jackson meets the poet Dylan Thomas and, upon kissing him, becomes “famous, finally, to herself.” In “Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Husband” Flenniken examines what life is like for those associated with the famous: “Oh the beauty of his wretchedness. /… / the stylish way he offered up his aching, // … / Swaddled in gauze / or lordly in black and blue, / love is a fiend.”
    From time to time Flenniken narrows her gaze, moving away from those in or near the limelight to those close to home. Her most poignant poems are devoted to parents, husband, children, friends. Here we see another of this poet’s winning attributes — her ability to not only stimulate our minds but also touch our hearts. In “Sea Monster” she revisits the suicide by drowning of a friend, a woman who left two daughters behind. This poem gains its power not through graphic detail but gentle diction and understatement:

                    How often have I wakened

        and thought of her, their mother, whom I loved,
        how she drove to a terrain as bleak as the moon

        loaded her backpack with rocks and jumped
        to the bottom of a lake? I believe
        in monsters. I believe in their cunning.

    In “Calling Up Ghosts” the poet resurrects the dead. The poem begins with an ordinary enough domestic scene: “I can always find Dad frying bacon in our kitchen. / I take a stool while he pours orange juice and offers me / the Sunday paper.… / It’s our way // of marking time until Mother wakes up.” And then Flenniken employs the technique that separates her from the herd. We expect mastery of technique, and Flenniken gives us that, but what commands our attention is her unique gift for disorientation. We do a double-take as a subtle turn occurs: “Maybe / because she died first, she’s undependable about rising . . ..” Now we realize that the mother is dead. Then stanza 3 delivers another jolt — the father is also dead. The speaker has spent the morning not visiting but remembering her parents. Once again she feels her loss:

                    an ache almost bursts my throat, that cry of children
        lost in department stores who know better
        than to make a scene, yet it rises anyway, a squeak, a croak,
        and there she is, lit up and comforting,

        You know I’d never leave you! Oh dear, I was here all along.

    Flenniken also has a gift for fusing together opposites or seemingly unrelated fields into one cohesive poem. These curious juxtapositions provide one surprise after another and almost certainly earned kudos from the judges. In “The Physiology of Joy” she joins the rational with the irrational as scientific researchers attempt to locate the part of the body where joy resides. One researcher, speaking on tv of his findings, moves from rational detail to miraculous image, claiming that

        … in his college anatomy class,
        sometimes the bodies would sigh
        at the end of a long dissection,
        an unaccountable flutter under his hands.
        Once he was last one out
        of that blue gymnasium of a laboratory.
        I don’t know if it’s proof, he said,

        but when I switched off the lights
        the transom windows glowed.

    In “Shampoo” a significant current event merges with a significant personal one. The speaker reads a newspaper article about a Russian submarine sinking, trapping its men inside. On the back side of the same page, she sees an advertisement for shampoo. This triggers a memory of shampooing her mother’s hair, and then comes the Flenniken leap — “and just like that I’m lost in the silver / of my mother’s hair, back in the hospital // where she sank into infirmity . . ..” Flenniken synthesizes the two unrelated topics, drawing a parallel between the submarine sinking and her aging mother sinking, “trapped inside her aging body. // … / One hundred eighteen men // in a vessel I imagine falling / like a pearl in a bottle of green shampoo.”
    Has Flenniken found a formula for success? Of course not. What she has done is write good poems, assemble them in a pleasing and intricate design, master technique, do something unique, be brave, speak to our heads and our hearts, and consistently surprise and delight us. Kathleen Flenniken is an accomplished poet, and Famous deserves the prize it won.

Flenniken, Kathleen. Famous. Lincoln, NE: Bison Books (University of Nebraska Press), 2006. ISBN: 0803269242  $17.95


© by Diane Lockward


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