ONEIROMANCE by Kathleen Rooney

Review by Marilyn McCabe

ONEIROMANCE
by Kathleen Rooney

Switchback Books
PO Box 478868
Chicago, IL 60647
ISBN 978-0-978612-3-3
2007, 62 pp., $14.00
www.switchbackbooks.com

The poems in Oneiromance, the 2007 Gatewood Prize winner from Switchback Books, may be dreams, as many are designated by their titles, but Kathleen Rooney is wide awake to the comic and terrifying possibilities of life in an institution – the institution of marriage, that is. There is little divine in these divinations, little romance in this oneiromancy; and yet these songs do honor the bride and the bridegroom, two brave individuals casting aside all fears to clutch each other’s sweaty hands and enter the chamber of “’til death do us part.”

In five sections plus an epilogue, Rooney presents the dreams and “scrapbooks” of a bride and groom in their abundance of weddings and honeymoons, a wedding in Brazil and one in the Midwest, and honeymoons in Brazil and Niagara Falls, plus the simultaneous weddings both in Brazil and the US of the bride’s sister. The characters are awash in weddings. No wonder their dreams are full.

The unruly and vivid dreams and lively scrapbooks are contained in neat poems that run down the page like church aisles, or ribbon across the page in couplets. The lines pulse with three and four beats. The language is rich with internal rhymes and word play, such as this, from “Brazilian Wedding: Dream No. 3” :

Ambulatory sisters—
sister somnambulists—
sorority of sleep-hikers—
we are crossing a bridge.

Such play and the no-holds-barred world that can be created in dreams makes for a startling and pleasing array of experiences as we stumble with the couple through their nuptials.
These are not the dreams of a Cinderella about to marry the handsome prince, nor of the handsome prince whose hard-won intended awaits. These are dreams of being lost, of risking everything, losing the self, running away:

We are still over the river.
Can it ever be crossed?
I pop the G out of bridge
& drop it in the bay. I say
bride aloud. G is for groom,
but R is for Rooney & R
is for room. This is not
a western. This is not
a noir. Our grooms don’t
know where we are…

Water laps these dreams, threatening to drown the waiting brides outside the Brazilian wedding chapel. It cascades with alarming power over the edges of the world, carrying mythological lovers to their doom. At Niagara Falls, data about the people who have gone over and died chills the honeymoon atmosphere, or adds a certain frisson: “…I will sail in a barrel over// the ledge. I will take you with me./ The water is cold. It gives us sangfroid…”

There is beauty here: “aqua fish leap from the aqua sea,” “a lunar lambency over choppy waves.” But for every light moment there is a dark one, sometimes eased with humor, sometimes not. In one of the groom’s dreams he finds his bride laid out like a corpse in the beauty shop, but she’s just getting her hair styled, her make-up done, and a Brazilian wax. In one dream, on her wedding night the narrator becomes a nun, “roaming/favelas in my nurse-white nunfit.” In another dream, the bride becomes covered in mayflies that carry her away, only to drop her from the sky when they inevitably and swiftly die. There is a kind of shot-gun wedding (“Midwestern Wedding: Dream No. 1”:

I promised to go quietly, but there’s a gun at my back.
Your hand—clenched together to make the barrel, the trigger—

feels bigger than I remember. The muzzle—the tip of your index
finger—strips a small hole in the small of my dress. You press hard…

We do get the sense that no matter how their fears play out in their dreams, these are a bride and groom who are in it for the long haul. There is love here, however pensive, however rueful: from “Niagara Falls: Scrapbook Three:” “We’ll never fornicate together again. So it goes./I put the key in the lock & the music crescendos.” In “Niagara Falls: Scrapbook Four” the bride muses on the Victorian practice of making decorative objects from human hair, and concludes:

…My own
growing hair will keep us warm,

keep our fond emotions from cooling.
Pooling at our feet, it will stop us

from slipping on the risky gangways
in the Cave of the Winds…

Although the whacked out images of her betrotheds’ dreams and scrapbooks skewer the hallowed wedding rituals of our time, the author has empathy with her poor characters, who are helpless to all their fears, wandering their jungle-filled minds, tripping over the roots of their own undoing. We do not lose faith in the institution of marriage, the ritual of wedding with these poems. The slenderness of the poems’ form seems to temper and contain the wildness of their content, so the overall effect of the book is to awaken us from the brief and rowdy dreams, not to remain in them.

In their sympathy, these poems encompass not just the wedding jitters of Rooney’s characters but all of us and our inevitable fears, silly and melodramatic as they often may become in the small hours of the night. The poems encourage us to laugh, however ruefully, at our own dreams of falling, our own cartoonesque backpedaling in the face of the demands of commitment – whether to another person or to life in general. In the end, as Rooney says, shrugging: “C’est la vie. C’est la guerre. C’est Septembre. C’est l’amour.”

____________

Marilyn McCabe’s poetry has been published in a variety of literary magazines, including Nimrod, Beloit Poetry Journal, and Natural Bridge, with essays appearing in Travelers’ Tales’ America anthology and in Hunger Mountain. She has received awards through the New York State Council on the Arts and through the Adirondack Center for Writing. She is currently pursuing an MFA at New England College. She can be reached at marmccabe@earthlink.net.