Review by Mary Brancaccio
by Carolyn Hembree
2102 N. Country Club Road
Tucson, AZ, USA 85716
2012, 70pp., $14.00
I like reading poems that play hard to get. I want to sit on the porch with them, take in their scent, ruminate over their words, wonder about their silences. You’ll find me in the poetry section of small bookstores, prowling through the stacks in search of another tantalizing chase. My most recent obsession turned up as a staff pick in Crescent City Books, deep in the heart of the French Quarter in New Orleans. What a thrill it’s been.
Carolyn Hembree’s Skinny is a burlesque fan dance of challenging poems. Yet, despite her sparse lines and experiments with syntax and diction, her poetry haunts. Uncanny fascination propelled me from poem to poem, and I steadily formed a loose, narrative arc that helped me string together this ambitious first collection. Hembree uses vivid imagery and taut language to create an unforgettable emotional landscape peopled by eccentric and universal characters that struggle but often fail to maintain dignity. I found myself thinking, I know these people. Who are they?
Hembree’s gift for melding knife-sharp observations, multiple voices, enjambments and lyricism creates a tapestry of a fraught family history. While Skinny attempts to fly to freedom over and over again, Mamie’s terminal illness tethers her to the South, a return that unleashes reverie, guilt, rebellion and ultimately love. The collection is divided into three sections, each prefaced by a quote from a silent movie – the Perils of Pauline, The Poor Little Rich Girl and Stella Maris—offering both context and wry commentary on the poems that follow. The final section, which encompasses Mamie’s death, begins with a line from Stella Maris, “Then – the woman in her died and she became a Thing …” Other characters enter the poems: “Old Sweetheart” “Bird,” “Horse Head” and even a first cousin with a knack for self-defense. The range of forms in Skinny—character portraits, lyrical elegies, narratives with lyrical elements, language poems and even two ekphrastic meditations on Picasso’s Guernica—highlight Hembree’s prowess and allow for many points of entry. Yet there’s a patience required. I had to court these poems, to live with them for days, even weeks before the layers dropped away. Even then, Skinny leaves much to the imagination.
Initially, Hembree’s poetry suggests the strong influence of John Berryman, especially in her evocation of Southern dialect, which oddly works with her experiments with inverted syntax and the grammar of pronouns. Some poems read as hermetic, though there are glimpses of skin, so they create mosaics that form nuanced portraits. Above all, Hembree’s knack for using details to ground her characters soars, as when she describes “First Cousin’s morning menthol/ filter waterlogged in Mamie’s pink soap dish” in “Skinny’s Nativity and a Bird’s Quietus,” or “Mamie supine in the back room – L’Airs du Temp/ and cherry wood, her slender carved bedposts and bed doll.” I find myself recognizing details that give away class, gender, region. Hembree’s poems powerfully evoke the Southern life I knew as a child in Virginia:
Mamie’s trash burning
onto dead bird peach can juice slow as hot lye
smoky caverns inside, out: fast dancing, holiday lights, wintry
Skinny’s world is simultaneously familiar and alien, and her journey reminds me of my own efforts to leave home. Its landscape mirrors the central speaker’s own stasis between an agrarian world she has outgrown and the New York theater world she aspires to join.
Despite Skinny’s often tragicomic tone, I was floored by heartbreaking moments of recognition, as in the second half of the poignant “Still of Mamie and Bird”:
Chair full of holes in the shower holds her body up,
a chair water runs through like memory and is lost.
Stand in her mirror, turn it right side out
then step into your grieving like a shift, Skinny.
Suddenly, I was in the shower bathing my own dying mother. Skinny’s love for Mamie is never in doubt, though there are moments when her mother’s love appears claustrophobic, as in “Skinny’s Nativity and a Bird’s Quietus.” As Mamie cradles her daughter, she says, “You wouldn’t, Love -/ Bug, goes the mother through capped teeth,/ on us dare turn.” Inverted syntax slowed my progression through the last line, allowing the creepiness of smother love to resonate.
“Guilt – is Sorrow – thinking –,” writes Hembree in the second of “A Couple of Odes on Her.” Her experiments with language and her urgent wordplay masterfully controlled my pace, focusing my attention on important clues. Taken as a whole, the collection follows the dramatic arc of a narrative, though individual poems often battle through sonorous emotional waves.
“Remembering is/ like putting a feather underneath/ the skull,” writes Hembree, “remembrance of trailer,/ and the high hard wind to lift it.” Reading Skinny took a willingness to momentarily live with disequilibrium, but my effort was rewarded. By its final pages, I knew the emotional toll of Mamie’s demise and her daughter’s disappointing life in New York. More importantly, her book led me on a journey through that difficult terrain of sexuality, obsession and desire, the unspoken legacy mothers bequeath to daughters. I may never fully know Skinny, but I’ll be forever glad to have spent time peering through her looking glass.
Mary Brancaccio is completing her MFA in Poetry at Drew University. Her poetry has been published in Adanna, Naugatuck River Review, Lake Affect Magazine, Chest, and in Farewell to Nuclear, Welcome to Renewable Energy: A Collection of Poems by 218 Poets, which was published in Japan and America as a bilingual edition. She’s worked as a broadcast journalist and a public school English teacher. Currently, she’s an assistant professor in the Caspersen School of Graduate Studies at Drew University.