With drawings by Kelly Carmody
Big Table Publishing, 2009 $12
Reviewed by Nick Asbury, Hilary Menos and Matt Merritt, with some thoughts from the Common Reader
The contents page of Kissing in Iceland promises us a trip around the world, with the poems grouped into seven sections titled Charlestown, the Island of Evia, Reykjavik, Stockholm, New York City, Amsterdam and Hollywood.
Strangely, by the end, I didn’t really feel I’d seen any of those places. The poems are very much turned inwardly upon the writer and the (often dark) emotional journey being taken. Take away the section titles and I’m not sure anyone would read the six poems in ‘Stockholm’ and guess where they were written. There’s no sense of place, beyond a passing reference to “houses/ with their pretty red shutters”. Instead, this is an indoor world of kitchens, desks, living rooms and bedrooms.
‘Lack’ (the third poem in the Stockholm section) is a good example. It opens:
I am sitting in our living room
complete with its faint odor of
dying lilies. They are in the blue vase
you bought for me last summer. Ironic,
the flower of death, dying.
(As a side note, I always think it’s dangerous for poets to point out irony, rather than letting the reader notice it, but then it is part of the overall conversational style being adopted.) The poem goes on to tell the story of an ex-partner who wants to come back and collect a red platter from the poet’s apartment, which the poet isn’t happy about:
It occurs me to me that I could pack some
of your things into a box and, in so doing,
observe your absence. Instead, I go and
I get the platter and I smash it against the
stereo. Then I take your dead fucking
flowers and I shove them in the freezer,
next to the bananas.
Much of the collection is written in this direct, confessional style—part internal monologue, part imaginary conversation with an absent ‘you’. Aside from line breaks, most of the usual devices that signal ‘poetry’ are absent. Instead, the poet relies for effect on the flow of the content itself and the occasional dramatic shift in tone (as in the sudden switch to anger above). I think this is a tricky thing to pull off and often felt the impact of the poems would be greater if they weren’t so loose from a formal point of view.
But there is some raw emotional power here, stemming mainly from the subject matter. The first poem takes us straight into a world where a young girl is accosted by a male teacher with a “lesson to teach”. Later, we encounter sexual abuse, domestic violence, fatal accidents and broken hearts—plus the occasional moment of happiness as we follow the poet in and out of relationships.
In the end, though, I was longing for the poet to throw open the door and explore some of the outside world that the contents page promises. And I suspect that, as a result, we might even end up with a better sense of her inner world.
The collection is smartly produced and presented, with illustrations by Kelly Carmody, which at their best have a nice sense of naivety—the sketch of the teacher accosting the girl in the opening poem conveys a sense of character with a few deft lines.
If Eliza Locke’s poetry is at all autobiographical, she’s had a hell of a life. Kissing in Iceland starts with child sexual abuse then moves on to beatings, casual sex and prostitution, road traffic accident deaths, adultery and (possibly attempted) suicide. The poet may have the best of intentions, but this pamphlet reads like a merry-go-round of trauma, disassociation and destructive relationships. The effect’s a bit like listening to the blues. Initially you’re moved, but after a while it becomes almost self-parodic.
‘Shadowlands’, a poem about routine child sexual abuse starts with a particularly disturbing image:
I will never forget the
creaking of the stairs,
one man just in front of me,
another right behind.
It’s hard to criticize poetry about such horrors when it reads so much as if it comes straight from the heart. But the piling on of grime and grit starts to wear after a while, and I begin to wonder whether Locke is dishing up a round of other people’s stories and other people’s pain in an attempt to create the character of an all-suffering Everywoman. There seems to me something not wholly authentic about this. Either the project or the poetry is flawed.
So, do the poems stand up on the page? Sadly, they don’t. I hate to wheel out poetry workshop rule number one, but Show Don’t Tell. ‘Shadowlands’ ends with a particularly melodramatic bit of telling;
[ . . . ] I caught a
sideways glimpse of myself in
a mirror, my skin slung over
my shoulder, about to be shed, and
I bit my lip then and waved good bye.
It’s all a bit clichéd, from stifling cries in a pillow to the sound of children playing outside. In fact, much in the collection is heavily signposted. A quick glance at the Table of Contents illustrates this—‘Rotten Things’, ‘Mistress’, ‘Tourist’, ‘Lack’, ‘Love Song for a Rock’.
The poems offer brief glimpses into (usually dysfunctional) relationships. Women are abused. Strangers have sex. Teenagers sit in the dark. Locke’s theme is, broadly, men are often horrible to women, and sometimes women get their own back. Sex does not equal intimacy. Love is unreliable. She’s not saying anything new here, and nor is she saying these old things in a new way. She adopts the confessional, free verse style of Sharon Olds, complete with oddly weak line endings and graphic sexual detail, but she can’t pull it off. In ‘Guilt’, a man tries to make up for his adultery:
He even tried whipped cream. As if
something of flavor on a nipple
or a navel would cure this disenchantment.
I have often wondered about the
cleaning bill from that night, the mahogany
desk covered in puffy, white, edible foam.
Poetry workshop rule two: watch your adjective count.
Eliza Locke writes with ambition and passion, and I’m sure her heart is in the right place, but neither her command of poetry, nor the gauche, over-interpretative line drawings alongside, do her subject matter justice.
The contents page of this handsomely produced pamphlet would have you believe you’re in for a veritable travelogue, with sections titled after cities as far apart as Holloywood and Stockholm, but it soon becomes clear that Eliza Locke’s real purpose is to map the peaks and valleys of love, and the travails of the human heart.
It’s subtly done, too. There’s a dark edge to the first section, ‘Charleston’, in which Locke establishes what you might call her default style—clean, and unadorned, at times more than a little prosey.
But then you notice something else happening. That, realistic, resolutely plain style is there to throw certain lines into sharp relief. In ‘Shadowlands’, for example, what seems to be the prelude to an episode of childhood abuse is recounted matter-of-factly, until suddenly the narrator catches a “sideways glimpse of myself in/ a mirror, my skin slung over/ my shoulder, about to be shed, and/ I bit my lip then and waved goodbye.”
A little further on, ‘Sea Of Love’ is a well-paced narrative that encapsulates the theme of the rest of the book—romantic love’s ability to carry us to new places, or drown us in its overwhelming rush. Locke is good at describing romantic yearning and physical passion, but even better at evoking the often desolate aftermath. Take ’Mistress’, for example, a superbly taut poem which builds in a thoroughly unshowy fashion to its climax of “What a mess we have created./ Secrets are the same as lies.”
It’s something of an exhausting emotional journey, and just once or twice Locke is guilty of letting the feelings get the better of the poetry, but for the most part it’s delicately drawn and perfectly honed.
I wasn’t, if I’m honest, as taken by the illustrations, which didn’t exactly distract from the poetry, but didn’t seem to add an awful lot either. Still, it’s the poetry you’re all here for, and that speaks for itself, and speaks very well.
The Common Reader says:
I liked this a lot. It had good balance. There was the gentleness of ‘The Softest Breeze Is You’ and the brutality of ‘Ugly, Wild’. I cried at ‘Sea of Love’. I mostly liked the poems and ‘got’ them all at some level but I didn’t think the illustrations were necessary, despite all the praise for them on the back cover.