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Contemporary Poetry and Poetics

Review of Lockward's Book of Poetry



Lockward is never at a loss — her ingenuity is endless and varied. 
In discovering the story in her poems, she leaves no stone unturned, 
no corner of the invented landscape unexplored. The dance 
continues into the very tips of the dancers’ toes and fingers.

Diane Lockward is a poet who knows how to play.  And in Eve’s Red Dress, a handsomely designed book from Wind Publications, she plays with language, with the ironies and delights of the human condition.   A much-published poet, former high school English teacher and current poet-in-the-schools for the Dodge Foundation and New Jersey Council On the Arts, Lockward knows how to celebrate through skill and sheer joy in the music of words and their multiple meanings, how to hint at injury or loss without getting lost herself, or losing the reader.  The poetry is firmly grounded in the reality of the body, the physicality and vibrancy of the images. We know the who, the where, the when, and yet every poem takes us unexpectedly to a place we have never been before. 
     The Eve poems which open each of the five sections of Eve’s Red Dress are a clue to the many-layered character of the book.  The thread of the Genesis story is woven through them, shifting color, yes, but always recognizable, always setting off and influencing the course of the narrative with wit and irony.  And yet there is no doubt Eve is a real person, someone we might have known.  "Eve Argues Against Perfection" leads off the book; this Eve may once have dwelt in the Garden of Eden, but she speaks in the voice of an ordinary American:  "Beguiled, my ass. I said no such thing."   She is sassy and argumentative and out to "tell it like it is"; she won’t be silenced: 

          You say the serpent tempted me to eat. 
          You omit that he entered the Garden 
          on two legs and walked like a man.

     The Eves of all five poems could be living in New Jersey, Lockward’s home, or in any middle-class town or suburb — Massachusetts, Indiana, Oregon.  After Eve’s lover leaves her, in "Eve’s Diner and Road Stop,"

                         The first thing I do is swear 
          off men. Then I pack up my lingerie and point
          the car west on Route 66 toward Paradise,

She finds a "real diner," and grabs a seat at the counter.  You recognize the accuracy of her portrait of the diner, the booths, 

            . . . a fly-specked calendar on the wall 
          and an old poster of Marilyn Monroe, 
          wind blowing up her skirt.

The surprise ending is neither New Jersey nor Nevada, but maybe something better than Eden: "Honey, you’re on your way to Paradise."
     Eve’s Red Dress speaks in the voice of the dress itself, a sexy satiny affair, a device which enables the poet to convey the secret sensuousness of a woman who has kept it hidden all her life ("her mother would dress her in blue, /  but she’s been blue so long.") Now, in the poem, 

                    She reaches for me, 
          imagines how I would slide onto her 
          like skin . . . 
                    . . . wants 
          to burst like a fireball onto the floor, spinning
          and whirling, my skirt singing, Touch me and burn.

     This hidden Eve wants to come out to the world, set things right, set things afire if necessary, be her sexy self.   One can’t help but be reminded of the first Eve, who argues that the Garden of Eden wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. 
     The middle-class housewife in "Eve’s Confession" cheats on her husband by eating his apple fritter while he sleeps late, "his ribcage peacefully rising and falling, the kitchen filled with the essence of apple," her inability to resist temptation another delightful resonance with the Genesis story. And "Eve’s Own Garden" is "no bower of bliss."  There are Japanese beetles, skunk cabbage, and 

                . . . of course 
          there’s a snake. What’s a garden 
          without a snake, a spring, 
                         and a fall?

     These five versions of Eve are women we recognize from our own experience, and the allusions to Genesis thus resonate through the whole book. This is mother, this is lover, this is child, this is the life we live outside the Garden. 
     Lockward is never at a loss — her ingenuity is endless and varied.  In discovering the story in her poems, she leaves no stone unturned, no corner of the invented landscape unexplored. The dance continues into the very tips of the dancers’ toes and fingers. Among my favorite poems is "Felis Rufus," where the poet’s son, growing into adolescence, gradually becomes a wildcat: 

          Long-legged, feet padded, he ravages 
          furniture, prowls the neighborhood 
          from dawn till dusk.

"My lynx-eyed son, my wild boy," leaves home for his own wild life, as adolescents will, and the poem’s mother is left to listen: 

          . . . Sometimes night breaks 
          with mournful howls, cantillations 
          come down from cold dark hills.

     With her usual double-edged skill,  she convinces us that the boy is turning into a wildcat, while letting us savor his transformation as a metaphor for growing up. 
     Certain poems abound with the pleasure she takes in words and their usage: "Why I Won’t Talk About Orgasms," "I’m Lonely As The Letter X," "On The Use of Concrete Language,"  "Feeding Habits," are feasts of language.  In "Eating My Words" the reader is left chuckling in sheer enjoyment of the virtuosity that calls forth syllables, words and combinations:

          We eat predaciously, two athletes
          of the soul, feeding our desire
          to speak. Words tumble out in a stew
          of confusion—bluegrass, hoodoo, bushwhack,
          incubus and succubus, bedrock, serendipity, 
          silly putty, tatterdemalion, violet and lavender.

     Although many of the poems are irreverent, funny, sexy, (some of my favorites: "The Intimacy of Laundry," "The Study of Nature," "Eve’s Red Dress," "Why I Won’t Talk About Orgasms") shadow is never wholly absent; it lingers here, in this landscape of reverberant meanings, a testimony to the dark that hides in the core of the human spirit, even in fathers, a dark with which it is clear the poet is well acquainted.  She is not afraid to grieve openly, in the wrenching "Service for the Murdered Boy," or subtly and indirectly, in "Miscarriage," or "After The Stillbirth":  "She went down to bedrock, / like a miner, hit the hard place / at the center, trapped / under the heft of stone, / unable to breathe."  And she is capable of unexpected tenderness, as in "The Changing Room." 
     This is a a sizzle of a book about Eve’s life after the Garden, the life she carries on in our own century inside herself, in her body, her desires, her truths and her lies, her griefs and her delights. The mythic underpinning of the five Eve poems leads us to sense that, however firmly rooted in American life and language they may be, they are about Everywoman, in any era, in any set of clothes. 
     Though there appears to be an "I" in the book who gradually reveals a personality, desires and some of her hidden injuries, this is not "confessional" poetry.  Lockward makes this clear in her marvelous final poem, "My Husband Discovers Poetry," even if we had not realized already that her poetry is a conscious creation, an "art."  She even tells us how she did it, starting from a seed of annoyance with the speaker’s husband "because he would not read my poems," to the full-blown details of the wife’s imagined escapade with a former boyfriend in a "quickie motel."  In the denouement, she finds her husband-creature shaking with sobs:  "It is my husband paying tribute to my art."  No tabloid "True-Story," but snatches of human truth are what we sense behind these poems.  With our delight in them and the scintillating language in which they are clothed, we may indeed pay tribute to this poet’s art.

Diane Lockward.  Eve's Red Dress.  Nicholasville, KY: Wind Publications, 2003.  ISBN: 1893239187, $14.00 

© by Ann Silsbee


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