Reviews, Vol. 1.1, June 2007
W.W. Norton, 2004
Paperback, 128 pp., $16.95
Review by Julie Senger
The title is the first thing that a reader might notice about Kim Addonizio’s book of poetry, as it is the first thing a person would notice about anyone’s book. However, what is unique about this title is that it seems to pose a question, yet there is no question mark at the end of it. Is this an accident or a purposeful statement that Addonizio is trying to make? Since most poets are very careful about anything that has to do with written language, the latter tends to be more believable. But to answer this question, one must turn to the book’s contents and examine them carefully. The collection is broken down into five different sections, which cover many different types of relationships and emotions.
A stand out poem in the first section is “You Don’t Know What Love Is.” This poem jumps right into action, as the title also acts as the first line of the poem since its actual first line is “but you know how to raise it in me” (Addonizio, 29). Much like any new, romantic relationship, this poem quickly immerses the reader in a realistic description of how these liaisons often turn out. It compares new love to “a dead girl winched up from a river” who “sits up and blinks; amazed, she takes a few shaky steps” (2, 4-5). In other words, the implied couple in this poem probably knows that this relationship is dead in the water before it even begins, but they make a go at it for awhile. But alas, in the end, Addonizio writes “Cover me/ in black plastic. Let the mourners through” (16-17). These lines solidify the temperamental nature of love and how it can be passionate for awhile but overall, unenduring.
There are three very moving poems in section two of What is This Thing Called Love: “Dead Girls,” “Eating Together,” and “Washing.” “Dead Girls” romanticizes death as it states that a dead girl, “Even a plain one/ who feels worthless/ as a clod of dirt” is redeemed/ by what she finally can’t help being,/ the center of attention, the special,/ desirable, dead, dead girl” (46, 16-18 & 21-24). “Eating Together” discusses two people having a meal in which one ailing friend pretends “not to know” what the narrator knows, which is that her friend is “going,” or dying, yet they “go on eating” (49, 21-22). And finally, “Washing” is a poem about a role reversal where a daughter has now become the caretaker of her aging mother. The speaker in “Washing” begins to reminisce as she helps her mother “onto the toilet lid where she used to sit/ as a child” and keep her mother “company” (65, 3-4). What these three poems have in common are the extremes that people will go to for love. In other words, they are sometimes willing to die, or watch someone they love die, while they attempt to comfort them in that inevitable process.
Section three begins with a poem called “It,” which describes the love or faith in something which we cannot label or even prove exists with our current language. This poem does this by recounting the mystery of the birth of a child. But rather than focusing on the love of the newborn, it focuses on the mystery or “thing – that held [the narrator] so helpless” (69, 7). The narrator continues to attempt to describe the indescribable by closing her poem with
That morning of her birth I felt it close to me,
forcing out the sweat and screams, and I knew
it would have killed me if it had to, for her sake,
for those few hours it loved her
like a mother, as it had once loved me in order to get me out (69-70, 21-25).
Section four has poems that deal in the quest for personal acceptance and understanding, no matter how unredeeming a character can seem to be. It does this in the poem “Bad Girl,” which describes a hypothetical female who is “sleeping all day, in a room/ at the back of your brain” (89, 1-2). In other words, everyone has a darker side to them that they are afraid to reveal for fear of being judged or misunderstood. Another display of contradictory duality is displayed in “This Poem Wants to Be a Rock and Roll Song So Bad,” which is demonstrated in stanzas like
Let me tell you what this poem really wants:
it wants to make you slam dance and fist pump
until you crawl across a sticky club floor,
weeping with profound understanding (98, 10-13).
While many people might consider some poetry quite musical, it is doubtful that they would liken it to the music genre of rock and roll, that is until they read something very contemporary, like an Addonizio poem.
The book concludes with its fifth section. In this portion, poems like “Miniatures” and “Kisses,” convey the need to believe that despite everything else that has been written before them in this book, that the poet desires to believe that somewhere, there exists for each of us, a love that is enduring and can conquer all. In “Miniatures,” Addonizio describes a doll house that the poem’s persona constructed for her daughter. This persona loved “listening to the house settle,/ looking down into the world/ [she] had made, and could save” (126, 35-37). These lines depict a make-believe world where the narrator feels she can have control over things, like a God, since this toy creation was built by her hands. However, like a God who dispenses free agency to creations, the narrator cannot control others’ capacity for love; she can only control her own emotions. Addonizio comes to this conclusion herself in “Kisses,” though the poem’s persona still displays an unending desire to receive love even in death, though rather than thinking other people can be controlled into loving someone, the persona simply states
Today I know I’ve
lost no one.
My loves are here: wrists, eyelids, damp toes, all scars, and
pouring praises, still asking, saying kiss me; when I’m dead kiss this poem,
it needs you to know it goes on, give it your lovely mouth, your living tongue (128, 29-36).
These lines clearly state the need for the love of self, while at the same time it is “asking” for the reader’s love rather than commanding it. This poem begs for the immortality of love.
So what is this thing called love? Or What is This Thing Called Love. After exploring the book, it is clear that the left-off question mark in the book’s title was intentional. This book doesn’t ask a question as much as it makes many statements about a very complicated subject. The word “What” can almost serve as a blank that holds a spot open for each reader to supply his or her own subjective term with which to fill it. But more likely, the word “What” represents the fact that love cannot be described with words, at all. No matter how hard one tries, he or she will always be forced to explain love through descriptions of actions and through simile and metaphor.