Review by Gregg Mosson
BAR NAPKIN SONNETS
by Moira Egan
40 Maple Ave
Bellport, NY 11713
2009, 32 pp., $9.00
Picking up a good book of poetry is akin to entering a new world. Moira Egan’s Bar Napkin Sonnets takes the reader on a bittersweet, sexy, and comic jaunt through the bar scene, being middle-aged without a partner, romantic without a golden cloud, and narrated by a 40-something who’s out and about. Yet, with her handy humanism and hardy lust, this poet in this poetry sequence keeps going to the bars for more adventure and, yes (maybe, well probably not), love. These humorous, endearing, sometimes lonely sonnets all are expertly done: conversational, contemporary, metrical, with occasional rhyme, and paint a short story in snapshots. Overall this chapbook is both a technical accomplishment and simple pleasure. As Egan writes in “Sonnet 22,” parenthetically as if talking to herself:
(I want to fall in love, but not forever.
Is that the truth, or am I still confused
where love’s concerned? Or am I simply used
to Solitary broken by Whoever …
Bar Napkin Sonnets will appeal to the metrical reader of contemporary poetry and also to his or her brother, spouse, or nephew who does not read poetry (but might try it). Why? These sonnets incorporate action, something not seen often in contemporary American poetry but which did appear more often in Modernist verse, from the rural narratives of Robert Frost to the metaphysical journey-stories of T.S. Eliot’s “Prufrock” and “Magi.” Plus, these stories are impactful. They are not highly tinctured, confessional navel-gazing. Rather, these concise sonnets feature just enough story to create a scene, set up some suspense, and turn a conclusion. Further this chapbook’s unity permits these poems to resonate. It is a significant effect in today’s poetry publishing marketplace with 60-page-plus and 100-page books, as if poetry was a grandpa who never shuts up. Moira Egan’s Bar Napkin Sonnets won the 2008 Ledge Press Chapbook Contest, and this sequence also appears in Egan’s more uneven full-length collection Spin (Entasis 2010). I prefer the chapbook because of its great design and its more complete resonance.
In the Bar Napkin Sonnets, a speaker narrates her experiences and feelings, as in an Elizabethan sonnet sequence. Instead of addressing her true love, the Elizabethan norm, Bar Napkin Sonnets take place in absence. Here we have a femme-fatal female speaker, confident in her sexuality, yet insecure about making lasting connections. Quite typically in Bar Napkin Sonnets, the twelfth untitled sonnet in the sequence begins:
I don’t mind bar food, sit and eat alone
and read and write and listen to the hum
of voices wafting up like smoke, the drum’s
insistence, all those men in bad cologne.
Yet, at the end of the sonnet, two people emerge from the humdrum to spark a private dance.
In the sonnet on page 17, the speaker opens with an image of romance:
We pause in conversation and the air
around us stills. I feel as if a globe
of yellow light’s enveloped us, alone,
and everyone around has disappeared.
It turns out, however, that the lover is “only twenty-five.” The femme fatal has already established herself as middle-aged. Throughout this sonnet, there’s a sense of romance willed into existence—a self-created illusion—floated upon the evening’s dance. With the dawn, romance comes and goes in this sonnet “ephemeral as youth.”
In the sonnet “He says his last girl didn’t like his muscles,” the speaker engages in a carnal one-night stand. However in the next sonnet (“It’s not my place or his to want to fuck”), the speaker is both repulsed and attracted to a one-night stand with a married man. In the end, the female speaker values love as well as lust. She does not ask the reader to agree or disagree. As with most good literary art, the sonnet leaves such evaluations to the reader.
“Sonnet 15” also recognizes a more fundamental desire for permanence. However, the speaker does not believe in such permanence. This ambivalence does not stop the speaker of these poems from living life and enjoying others. This complex ambivalence is well-conveyed in Bar Napkin Sonnets. The speaker also is introspective in these poems, which acts sometimes as a chaser to her adventures. In fact, the speaker is a poet, writing catch-as-catch can. This fact also appears in the sonnets, but lightly, smartly, and indicating a desire for more depth than offered often in a bar.
Moira Egan, the author, is married and lives in Italy. Before she moved there, I first encountered Egan as a fellow poet in the lively Baltimore poetry scene. I even heard some of these sonnets read at a midnight poetry reading years ago, at a local artist’s loft space. I had a sense then that she hit her stride. I am glad to see it’s true. The sequence closes with the connection between love gained or lost, and the desire to embody it in writing:
Are love’s inscriptions like a form of art,
or injuries incurred from constant motion:
tennis elbow, carpel tunnel, arrhythmic heart?
And you should see my scars I sit alone,
a glass of wine, a napkin, and my pen.
On the one hand, with successful love, writing embodies it in “love’s inscriptions.” On the other hand with love lost, it resembles “injuries.” The writer is left with a Keatsian negative capability (“a glass of wine, a napkin, and my pen”), a blank introspection and emotional resonance.
Romantic British poet William Wordsworth, in the preface to his Lyrical Ballads, said that poems should provide pleasure as well as rely on colloquial speech. Wordsworth’s directive toward pleasure is not as often remarked upon. Bar Napkin Sonnets, simply put, is a good read. Its expert craftsmanship and storyline provide pleasure. The sequence creates a real window on the real world. That’s valuable.
Aristotle argued that catharsis was the key feature of Ancient Greek tragedy, the audience feeling the harrows of Oedipus’ fall without having to live its consequences. Maybe empathy is a key mechanism of lyric poetry, permitting the reader to travel with a poet and experience, at a safe distance, all that is encountered. Bar Napkin Sonnets is lighthearted, yet reflective, about getting older, and staying young. The sonnets take you there. Enjoy.
Gregg Mosson is the author of two books of poetry, Season of Flowers and Dust (Goose River 2007) and Questions of Fire (Plain View, 2009). His writing and literary criticism and reviews have appeared in The Cincinnati Review, The Potomac Review, Measure, The Lyric, Smartish Pace, and Rattle.