Review by J.K. Halligan
by Colette Inez
P.O. Box 541106
Cincinnati, OH 45254-1106
2012, 104 pp., $19.00
Horseplay is Colette Inez’ tenth collection and fruitfully resumes the searching strategies of its predecessor, Spinoza Doesn’t Come Here Anymore, peering back at family origins and out to the cosmos, wandering from Europe to Manhattan to California and back. This unsentimental observer brings together the aleatory and the mundane, the mythic and bathetic, all the while remaining alive to hermetic forces and secular ecstasies.
Spinoza featured the mesmerizing “Como Pantoum” in which Perry Como, General MacArthur and the poet herself revolved and collided like newly formed stars at the post-war birth of the American Century. The form’s repetitions with variations recreated the seeming ephemeral and random influences behind everyday encounters, rendering cliché snapshots behind everyday encounters, dynamic and poignant. Horseplay aims for a similar balance between Apollonian stasis and Orphic movement, the celestial spheres and the ha-ha profane. But unlike a misery memoir, focused on the quotidian and soaked with narcissism, these poems glance away in several directions at once, into natural history, physics and astronomy, exotic locales and parallel pasts.
In “Vows of a Second Language,” we are led back to an orphanage in pre-war Belgium where the children line up for their meals and “the prayers are flavorless”:
In this picture, a child returns to the field
where her house broke apart,
bangs on a lost pot
to wake the ones who sired her.
Recollecting her priest father’s “avowed cigarettes” and the ephemeral smoke that curls around the painful aporia of “what is hollowed out,” the orphan and her friends and belongings fly away in imagination to war-torn Belgrade where the young Charles Simic, “mon frère en poesie,” opens a window onto the future. Inez , the unwilling altar girl, rejected daughter of the Church, later grows to adulthood in Manhattan and there discovers in poetry, as so many exiles have and do, a Rome away from Rome. The Virgin Mary, who had once “relieved her of significance” in a childhood vision, retires to the interstellar spaces, leaving behind only secular immanence.
“Maroon Velvet” sketches a liminal scene at a foster home on Long Island: the pot-banging waif is older, perhaps not yet a teen, marooned next to primal waves and somewhere between the old world and the new. Her grey and cluttered bedroom is contrasted with the colorful clothes of a fellow Belgian girl, cultured and confident, sure of her own religion, and on her way to a better home. The girl’s prayers and piano-playing evoke a longing for what is lost, but the fragile sentiment is preserved through a sharp touch of the bathos from TV, as the gulf between old and new (“Hi-Yo Silver!”) yawns.
For the adult, aesthetic consolation has its limits: “No one said the beauty of this evening would shield me from the facts.” But the tactic is especially habit-forming for a daughter of the clerisy. No Virgin hovers in attendance when she visits the grave of her mother, a librarian-scholar who researched, refined and finally “lectured the crow on the suppleness of the song.” The daughter, less certain, retains a humility borne of abandonment, and the years spent communing like Kaspar Hauser with the inarticulate and inanimate, staring into the distance at “metal boxes with people in them.” A cipher left behind, she senses the other ciphers as a shaman receives the spirits: “Half shapes, fox, goat, blue fish in the clouds.”
The mother’s narrow field of research opens, for the daughter, onto the infinite. Sifting through papers left behind at the family home reveals a female Erasmus of sorts, a correspondent near the heart of Christiandom; but, rather than a Demeter furiously searching for her offspring, the scholar has been quietly tending the vines in the hortus conclusus. No caritas graveside, either, certainly no agape; only the life force in nature, sufficient unto itself: “At dark purple martins annulled a swarm of gnats. What hummed in them hums in me.” (“The Spell of the Motherland”)
Parental preliminaries thus out of the way, what remained to be examined? His papers destroyed by the mother, nothing of the father remains but a photograph. No point of asking Rome for the details, surely; nor of conjuring him from nothing into kitsch, like Sharon Olds. Instead, Inez follows a winding and almost serendipitous trail, a peripatetic like her father. She breaks off the search to make humorous and quirky observations, delight in the mundane, pay respects to Wallace Stevens (and the African pygmies who were drumming out poems while he was on the tennis court). The trail grows cold in California: by then, daughter has become father; his face looks back from the mirror and she herself is married, an apostate married to reality as he was married to the Church. (“California Father”)
By now, the pot-banger is something of a Manhattan hipster, nodding her head to all the abandoned rhythms that were there before the alphabet, careful to remember the pitiful retinue of the past, ever wary of Narcissus.
Phantom dispatch of anonymous
names blown at the illiterate fair
attended by every invisible child
(“The Letter before A”)
Like the inverted “A” that has elected to activate itself and becomes a horn in order to be heard, the poet-as-cipher resolves to play the world of ciphers, and all her peers, the dead letters, the moribund symbols and sad objects, will equally be made heard. Just as Ingrid Bettancourt found poetry all around her in her jungle captivity, Inez looks around what remains of her family tradition. Out of these nomina (which are all that remain) a poem is formed and, inescapably, the act adds distorting value to the signified as surely as the poet herself commands a brokering fee, or the priest collects an indulgence. The fee is her very existence, her individuality, and her right to be heard: “It’s my story. I’ll write it.”
To the uninitiated, however, poems are a liberal self-indulgence as taxes are to the Tea Party, or as Brussels is to a Euro-sceptic. There has to be some featherbedding happening, somewhere surely. Are all these words and self-regard necessary? Why all the Gallic chatter by poseurs droning on about personal matters? Such is the long-held popular view, as enduring as it is wrong, as Dominique de discovered when he ran for the French presidency and the masses told him where he could put his poetry.
In the movie, Crossing Delancey, the tongue-tied everyman played by Peter Riegert is a pickle salesman who follows his inamorata to a literary salon in upper Manhattan; there he encounters a Marianne Moore-like figure of eccentric dress and speech—eloquent, intellectual, ergo dubious. This caricature of the “poetess” is quite unfair, but also undying, because the worthy bathos of pickles cannot be leavened (we are told) into metaphors. Metaphors are inherently untrustworthy, and what did Marianne Moore know from pickles?
Colette Inez, following a childhood full of pickles, made her entrée in Geof Hewitt’s anthology, Quickly Aging Here, with Fanny Howe, Stan Rice, a young Denis Johnson and others. Many of the contributors were in their late twenties; in the bios at the back of the book, they betray a certain ambivalence toward the difficult art. Some years older, and having crossed her personal Rubicon, Inez stood ready to declare: “I love poetry and cannot think of any life without it.”
J.K. Halligan lives in Collingwood, Ontario and is the author of book of poems about Cambodia, Utopia. He has had poems in Vallum Magazine, Oxford Poetry, TLS, and the California Quarterly.