V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics

Review of Diane Lockward's Book of Poetry




Lockward’s words, whether spicy radishes or bocconi dolci
on the lips, reveal timeless themes and obsessions:
the punitive father, the breakdown of a mother, the waiting
of the womb to fill, the accidents that may or do befall our children. 
The joyous celebration of food, drink, love; the struggle
against the feared; the bittersweet meditations
on what is lost; the metamorphosis of fire and passion.

Every taste the tongue seeks and savors — salt, sour, bitter, sweet — even umami, the fifth taste, itself the savory — is summoned forth for us in Diane Lockward’s rich second book of poems, What Feeds Us (Wind Publications, 2006).  Mistress of diction, she relishes each word, and so these poems ravish ear and eye, heart and mind.  The book’s epigraph is a line by the famed gastronome M.F.K. Fisher:  “. . . there is nourishment in the heart, to feed the wilder, more insistent hungers.”  We are prepared for passion.  Passions.
    And what passions does Lockward explore?  Not merely the familiar hungers of tongue and belly, but also hungers for the fiery lover’s touch; for courage before the sting of “King Bee”; for forgiveness for her own seldom-wielded sting; for solace, and for healing.  Against her meditative sense of loss, she balances the bristle of irony and bad-girl delight in the wicked.  She seduces us with love and linguini, with split vanilla bean and sun-glorious blooms that testify to the world’s abundance.  “O taste and see”: the Psalmist’s call rings from these pages as they celebrate pang and pleasure, the butter on our fingers, the blood that feeds the body.
    Because language infuses the book, I begin with an antipasto of delight:  the artichoke’s “small filet of delectable heart” (“The First Artichoke”); the scorned tomato that “languish[es]” between “stiff carrot and atrocious / onion” (“The Tomato Envies the Peach”); the linguini, which “knew of the kisses, the smooches, / the molti baci” (“Linguini”), the slant rhymes of her ghazal:  “test on love / . . .chest. On love / . . .mess of love / . . . ” that culminates in the wry “Diane, once again, you’ve received an F in love” (“Love Test: A Ghazal”).  She plays with cliché in “Heart on the Unemployment Line,” making fresh a fistful of old sayings: “It’s a good heart , / in the midst of the matter, / not dangling on anyone’s sleeve ./ Previously left in San Francisco. . .  / Never taken a bullet though something like a knife moved through it. . . .”
    Even dueling with bee-fear, her language soars:  “Fat-assed insect! Perverse pedagogue!” she curses him in assonance and alliteration.  And in the poem “Fear” (“. . . creaks / in dark stairwells, a rock stuck in your cheek, / I’m the bone that won’t heal . . . ”), sound echoes ominously in repeated k’s that creak through the line, the mourning o’s of “bone” and “won’t.”  As balance: “The Bee Charmer,” where a lover cajoles her in a current of s’s and l’s:  “He kissed my palm, sucked // out the poison, and brewed me a cup / of jasmine tea, stirred with a dollop / of honey. . . .  // . . . rehearsed the necessity of bees, / then kissed me until I surrendered— // . . . . For hours, he hovered / over me.  I felt the flutter of wings, / heard a buzz at my ear.  I awoke / in noontime sunlight, my body / covered with the dusty bloom of pollen.”  
    Lockward’s words, whether spicy radishes or bocconi dolci on the lips, reveal timeless themes and obsessions: the punitive father, the breakdown of a mother, the waiting of the womb to fill, the accidents that may or do befall our children.  The joyous celebration of food, drink, love; the struggle against the feared; the bittersweet meditations on what is lost; the metamorphosis of fire and passion.
    Many fine poems to choose among: I focus here on a few that serve as touchstones.  First, the seven-section title poem that opens the book:  “What Feeds Us” interweaves a poet’s writing retreat, the dream story of love between two high-school students, a celebration of forbidden foods, and two bitter incidents in which her father serves as unjust punisher, withholder of food and approval, before the poem ends with an invitation that echoes the focuses of her first book (Eve’s Red Dress, Wind Publications, 2003).  Let us begin. 
    [I] On retreat, the narrator brings what  she “really” needs:  an abstemious two books, her laptop, “clean white” paper, a radio “in case I get lonely,” “The Hungry Mind Review,” “just enough clothes.”  There is an economy of need and appetite here.  But she also brings “three almond croissants, / one of which I have already eaten.”  Four hungers already named: of the body for food, the tongue for taste, the mind for stimulation.  The spirit for comfort. 
    [II and V]  A “white chocolate chip / macadamia nut cookie” jumps us to an unrequited high-school love by her friend Joe, a classic misfit, for the “luscious” Darlene who ignores him.  He dreams she would hold out “her cookie like a valentine.”  He would “take that cookie, and Darlene’s lips / would be all over it.”  The two return in section V, where the dream Darlene “looks at Joe / the way Bergman looked at Bogart in Casablanca,” and brings the cookie, “as if making an offering to a god.”   He accepts, and is transformed by love — love summed up in sweets.    
    [III and IV]  Between these dreamy sections, Lockward introduces two radically different subjects:  first, another dream world where forbidden foods — cheeseburgers, French fries, “just as much salt  / as you wanted” — are invoked as the perfect and guilt-free indulgence of desire without rebuke.  “Imagine this” she begins, and chants “wanted . . .wanted. . . wanted,” but we know that this world, where catsup comes out “with one quick tap” is not the world we live in.
    In section IV, Lockward lures us in with a first line end-cut for impact:  “Saturday my father drives us to his garden . . . “  she says, and we imagine The Garden, a place of fruit and innocence.  But it is not:

        Saturday my father drives us to his garden
        out in the country because my brother and I
        have been bad. . . .

Here, the gladiolus rises in spikes, “row after row,” like soldiers ranked for war.  The children are cast out, sentenced to clear “the rusty cans by the barn. / They reek of putrid water. / When we move them, bees and wasps fly out.”  Their punishment: to deal with decay and fear.  But “If we cry, we’ll be punished.”  Voiceless, they work in double jeopardy.   
    [VI]  Punishment is offset in Section V by Joe’s fulfilled dream of proffered love.  But now the father-punisher returns as the cheater who assigns her name to flowers he has raised, and enters them to win a blue ribbon in the “junior” competition.  But the ruse is transparent:  “Her father grew these gladiolus. / Who are they kidding” a bystander spits out.  She cries to her father, trying to find “the right words / for shame.”  His response is swift:

        My father puts me in the car, leaves me there all day.
        On the way home, he won’t stop for food,
        though I haven’t eaten for hours.
        He says crybabies don’t eat.  

No food, no companionship, no love.  This is a tarnished garden, an expelled Eve. 
    Section VII:  Lockward returns us, nonetheless, to the original garden, Eden, and to the writer’s solitary journey onto the page:  “In my story,” she says

         . . . Eve walked out of the Garden,
        unencumbered by Adam
        and carrying only the apple.
        She didn’t know where she was going,
        but knew she’d need something to eat.

    The poet — Everywoman — sets off alone to realize what she wants, armed only with an apple and determination.  We enter the book.


Some say insomnia is “the poet’s disease” — that buzz of words and images that banishes sleep.  “Insomniac” begins with a characteristic Lockward line break:

        Because I could not sleep, I counted
        injustices. . . . 

Not wooly sheep.  Injustices.  Framing the list is a childhood incident: her brother breaks “bottles on concrete” and tells her to walk “across glass, barefoot and bloodless, / like the Indian holy man we’d seen in a film.”  That image unresolved, she moves to “1958, / Fourth of July, Father forcing me into bed / long before dark — I had rolled down / the hill of his lawn.”  Locked away, she hears “explosions like dynamite, explosions like bombs.”  Then to the summer her mother leaves her alone with the father: the bathroom door’s lock is broken, she goes without bathing for 60 days and nights, “skin grown thick as a lizard’s with grime.”  She is sent to “sleepaway” camp that he says “would fix a girl like me”: this child is cast as flawed.

    But her insomnia is driven as well by her own guilty participation in injustice:

        I could not sleep because sin entered the scene,
        the evidence I planted against my brother—
        hot water bottle scrawled with his name in black ink—
        and when he denied the crime,
        the sound of my father’s hand pounding on skin,
        the sound of my brother breaking.
No one is wholly innocent in this family: “sin” slowly leaks to every member.  Even when the poem returns us to the sidewalk’s broken glass, where the father runs to scoop up the bleeding girl, his apparent rescue is cast in telling Biblical terms:

        . . . my father running toward me, always in slow motion,
        always carrying me home, how he laid me
        on the kitchen table as if I were Abraham’s child,
        how he sponged me in cool water, and tweezed
        shards of glass from my bloody feet.
In the old story, Abraham’s child is not saved by Abraham, but bound and readied for the sacrificial knife: it is not he who withholds his hand, but God.  This father’s still armed.
    The sting of aggression links father and “King Bee” throughout: the poet circles to cope repeatedly with fear, defiance, and combat.  Pivotal is the remarkable “Showdown with the King Bee,” the last poem in section three.  “Showdown” develops as “What Feeds Us” does:  in intertwined sections revealing images of personal sin and nightmare; of betrayal and seduction; linked fears of dogs, bees, the dark; a seemingly hopeless longing to be loved.  These funnel through the poet’s narrative confrontation with King Bee, who appears “in nightmares, / huge and hairy, hanging over my bed, / waiting for me to sleep”:

        I could not tell my story to anyone but the bees. . . .
        Long before I saw you, I heard you inside the walls.
        Someday I will think about home,
        the long ride back, who I’ll be
        when I get there, and if I’ll make
        any wrong turns.

And the last, telling section, in its entirety:

        When I finish spilling my guts,
        the King Bee says: “I choose you
        because you are afraid.


    What Feeds Us is also a silken tent of the senses, the sensual and redemptive pleasures of kiss and calyx and cuisine.  When the father leaves home with his mistress, the poet celebrates blooms, even dandelions, as “the whole world” turns yellow: “Sunflowers sprung up like born-again / Christians — lemon lilies, goldenrod, / buttercups, and coreopsis” among which the narrator dances

              . . . like some wild thing,
        her straw-colored hair whirling in circles,
        the miller’s daughter at the wheel,
        all around her yellow spinning out gold,
        and more gold, not fool’s gold, but real.

                [“The Summer He Left”]

    Salve to her mother’s brokenness is “Blueberry,” a celebration of the “deep-blue hue of the body, silvery bloom / on its skin . . .  /  . . . feasting on indigo.”  Blueberries are “the favorite fruit of my mother,” she tells us, and we rise to the end of the poem where she and her mother eat blueberry pancakes in the kitchen:

        This is what I want to remember: my mother
        and me, in our quilted robes, hair in curlers,
        that kitchen, that table,
        plates stacked with pancakes, blueberries sparkling
        like gemstones, blue stars in a gold sky,
        the universe in reverse,
        the two of us eating blueberry pancakes. 

    Lockward’s signature celebration ripens most deliciously in “The History of Vanilla,” which weaves together the luscious lure of food, sex, linguistics, sleep, and healing, while dabbling in word origin and history:

        The History of Vanilla

        Need something to lull you to sleep? 
        This could be the sedative you long for,
        hedge against loneliness, antidote
        to grief, the bean of your desire.
        Discrete at wrist and neck, keepers
        of the secrets of vanilla.  Listen and doze:
        Totonacos, Aztecs, Hernando Cortez.
        Whisper his name.  Precious plunder
        of Spain.  With cacao, elixir rich and noble.
        Drift into dreamy exotica, Madagascar,
        Mexico, Tahiti.  Picture the orchid, hand-
        pollinated, the dangling fruit.  Rootlets
        attached to trees and vines.  You, unrooted,
        rootless, uprooted, always on snooze
        alarm.  Latin root: vagina.  Diminutive
        of vaina: sheath, vagina, pod. 
        Pods bundled in blankets, laid in the sun,
        wrapped back up to sweat
        overnight as you so often do.
        Repeat and repeat until properly cured,
        until the slow, gentle recirculation
        of menstruum moves through your beans,
        until you’re pure.  Pure vanilla extract,
        perfect for anything you crave, savory
        soups and sauces, vanilla-seared scallops,
        lamb peppered and roasted in creamy
        bourbon vanilla, ice cream bean-pricked.
        Soporific of your dreams.  A kitchen,
        an island, a man, the two of you making
        crème brûlée, the air laced with fragrant
        oily liquid, the ripe pod in your hand.

    “ . . . always on snooze alarm” — Lockward also can train a wry eye on what she most loves.  She praises the lover who brings her honey and roses, who makes crème brûlée. But she can also turn a slant eye to desire, an Eve who’s no simpleton, a Lilith who likes the taste of control.  In “Meditation in Green,” for example, she plays with revelation: “It comes to me as a commandment: / Thou shalt meditate on green.
    And at first, the poet is “obedient,” and turns her thoughts to grass as would Isaiah: the grasses that fade away.  She slides, however, to other greens: lime, apple, emerald.  Her last lover’s eyes.  Then “the sound / of some other woman’s voice,” a note that swerves the poem to the (unnamed) green of wildly creative jealousy:

                        . . . now I conjure
        potions to send my lover—to turn him green,
        the color of contagion, burn him in bile, feed him
        seedless green grapes, skin peeled with the blade
        of my Swiss Army knife, to offer one gelatinous
        globe—Here, eat this! Oh! To watch him pluck
        the head from its stake, swallow it whole, fall and
        fall, and choke on that green grape of sorrow,
        twist and shrivel with despair, tongue
        darting and hissing, unable to speak.

Perhaps lizard, perhaps snake, darting and hissing, silenced.  This imagined revenge is deliciously summoned, deliciously enjoyed.  Life beyond the Garden is irresistible but not innocent, not without pain.  This Eve reaches out for love, but has learned that the undefended, the unprepared, must see to their hearts.


    “Sometimes / I’m so blue I don’t think I’ll ever see green again” the narrator says in the prose poem, “Sometimes in Dreams.”  And in “Meditation in the Park,” she muses on “where things . . . go when they go away.”  Her unbrightenable list of loss: the old boyfriend, Penny the Dachshund, kittens dying, “each / stiffening as if stretching, then gone for good.”  Her father.  Her mother, who’s become the “jackrabbit ready to run.”  And those things she’s found?  Other people’s things, other people who might have found hers: “To the finder it’s just somebody’s junk. / To the loser it’s special, except it’s gone.” 
    The most poignant of these poems — because she deftly controls the feeling through word choice, tone, and pace — are those that center on loss and children: the failed pregnancy (“”Wren House”), the damaged child (“The Gift”), the yearly reminder of loss (“Anniversary”), the heart “grieving without tears”( “Virga”), and the superbly constructed “A Boy’s Bike.”
    “Wren House” takes as its vehicle the ritual preparation of a birdhouse to tempt a wren pair to nest: the narrator and her husband hang it, “eas[ing] the curve” over a branch, fill the nearby feeder with seeds, and wait patiently while they imagine “the bundle of grass and twigs, eggs / hatching, the fluttering of wings.”  But interleaved are lines, often set off by white space, that shadow the surface action: the standalone “We could not bear the possibility of loss”; and “A hinged door, tiny latch we could open / at season’s end to scrape out the nest.” The pair “listen[s] for singing” in the next-to-last stanza, but the shadow stanzas have fallen darkly across the last lines, which draw the threads of failed pregnancy and failed lure together in a heartbeat:

        We had waited like this before,
        wanting some soft creature to fly in. 

    Lockward also achieves this control through irony, an achieved tone that grips the heart  in “The Gift.”  The poem appears to posit a marriage to which the woman brings a damaged child, “a boy, seventeen. / He’s your new son.”  The child is presented as a gift waiting under a Christmas tree (“Remove bows, foil, and lid”), one that “require[s] partial assembly.”  The analogy to a mechanical object permits a distancing from pain.  The poet provides directions (“Next, attach limbs to torso”) as though the child were a ventriloquist’s dummy.  The word choice here so carefully remote, we know something is awry — but not apparent (“Quite a handsome boy, don’t you think?”). 
    Then, in the next stanza, the parallel with assembled toys grows clearer, and darker:

        Of course, and wouldn’t you know it,
        though the attached certificate asserts
        Lila Watkins inspected the kit
        at our Michigan plant prior to shipment,
        essential pieces are missing.
        There’s no tongue.  This boy won’t speak.
        And no brain will ever go where a brain ought to be.    

The heart (broken), the brain (missing), the “batteries” not included: “This boy won’t run.” 

    Lockward could have ended here, with mere heartbreak.  But she pushes farther, proposing in the final stanza “Maybe it’s better this way”: the boy sits “nicely” at table, can’t get in trouble, “won’t ever turn / eighteen.”  Words offered as “comfort” but deepening the despair: “He’ll last forever. / This boy’s durable. / This boy won’t break.”  It is the mother speaking, her heart broken and breaking, whose arms have ached in trying and trying to make this damaged engine go.  The poem lives out Chekhov’s advice: to move your reader, write more coldly.  

    A literally breath-taking exploration of how feeling attaches to incident comes in the one long run of a stanza that is “A Boy’s Bike.”  It begins with an almost casual recital:

        One morning a bike appears in our driveway,
        at the end where we can’t not notice it. . . . 

    In other hands, this incident might produce flyers, the bike set aside on the lawn.  But here it becomes an occasion that rises line by line to a personal and existential cry.  The third line shadows where the poem might go:  “ . . . Where / someone who’s not being careful will crush it.”  Not might crush it, but will. 
    The poet describes the bike as “a wounded / animal,” its chain is “rusty,” the kickstand, “broken.”  It reeks of disorder:  “It’s not our bike, and / we don’t want it.”  But the police don’t either: “ . . . crimes to deal with.  Things disappearing, not / bikes appearing.”  Now the boy, the bike’s owner, “appears” in the poem:  “we know that somewhere a boy is missing / his bike.”  But when “days go by and no boy / shows up,” the couple moves up a notch:

        . . . We begin to worry about the missing
        boy.  And so it is that our worries double.  And then
        triple for we are missing him, and we don’t even
        know him, but maybe we know a boy like him . . .

    This “missing” becomes increasingly personal: the next “boy on a bike” who enters the skein of the poem is the imagined “boy who once lived here, a boy who once took / his sister’s new Schwinn without permission . . .  ” and, flying downhill, falls, badly cuts his foot, limping home to show his mother “a slice so clean no blood yet, the bone inside white as cuttlefish, and later stitches / and pain.” 
    The narrator tries to tie the worry up neatly with an aphorism (“Lesson learned: If you take a bike without / permission, you get hurt.”).  But this is merely a temporary distraction, because now the boy’s mother enters the poem and its tight net of feeling:  “Somewhere a mother hurts; she is missing her boy.”  Somewhere in the present of the poem, a boy continues to “hurtle” down a hill, “out of control” and calling “Look, Mom!”  But in the last lines the boy shifts shape again, becomes “our boy”: the missing boy is theirs, ours, as he blurs into our lives:

        . . . so fast we can’t see him, but we know this boy
        is our boy, and we are there waiting for him to hit
        the point of impact, longing for him to find his way
        home, to come to us with his bloodless wounds.  


    On the last pages of What Feeds Us, Lockward begins “The heart wants what the heart wants, / and what it wants is fire.”  Fire flares up in each section of this book:  “Reconstruction” begins “I am a house he would move into . . . ” and, so sheltered, she exults in the last line  “I am two-storied now.  He builds a fire in me.”  In “Metamorphoses,” a sequence of three unrhymed sonnets that celebrates teenage love and the poet-teacher’s role in aiding and abetting it (via Dante and Shakespeare’s Juliet who “teach(es) the torches to burn bright”), she watches “the boy in my class fall in love” and so she herself “sizzle[s] and “burn[s]” with remembered heat.  The longer the ardor and seduction continue, the more she is herself affected: she begins to turn into Cupid:  

        I fold the cumbersome wings under a sweater
        hide bow and arrows in my briefcase. 

But when she sees the pair “strolling the hallway,” as Astrophel and Stella, she herself ignites:

        . . . I close the door, hold in all that light.
        Once more, I read from Amoretti, stunned

        by my own remarkable power, my entire
        body electric, my hands carrying fire.

    In “Pyromania,” the fierce and fiery poem that closes this satisfying book, she multiplies the fires that blaze within us: from Grucci, the famed fireworks company, to the woman forest ranger, who burns letters “a firestorm in her heart” and sets thousands of acres ablaze, “trees surrendering to fire,” and then to the scientific peculiarities of modern cremation: silicone breast implants must be removed because they will explode, “destroying the crematorium.”  These, she says, are the breasts she wants, the kind that “ignite and explode,” that spread like wildfire, like “tongues of scarlet licking the walls.”  This is not a woman who can ever be locked in a room again.

    “Feast on your life” says Derek Walcott, in “Love after Love.”  And so Lockward does: prepares a feast of her words and images, fire and fruits of her life, real and dreamed.  She nourishes our hearts and minds, and nowhere more wonderfully than in “The Best Words,” from section four.  Those “best words” are the ones “that put a finger to the flame but don’t burn.”  “Wild words” she says, “that shake their hips, / thrust out their genitalia, / and say Feast on this.  Sexagesima — my God! / what a word for the second Sunday before Lent.”  The poem riffs ecstatically at the end, channeling Jerry Lee Lewis as her words pound with his fingers on the keyboard:

        Cockatiel, cockatoo—words with wings.
        the hoarfrost of winter, lure of a crappie,
        handful of nuts, kumquat, lavender crystal of kunzite,
        the titillation of shiftless and schist, the bark and bite
        of shittimwood, music of sextillion and cockleshells.

        And always somewhere in the distance, Jerry Lee Lewis,
        blond curls flapping, groin pumping, fingers pounding
        the keyboard, his throat belting out Great balls of fire!
        words like fat radishes burning my tongue.

Lockward, Diane.  What Feeds Us.  Nicholasville, KY: Wind Publications, 2006.  ISBN: 1-893239-57-8   $15.00

© by Judith Montgomery


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