Lips. Tongue. Desire. Belly. Straddling, sweating, entering. This powerful new collection from Vermont/Hawai'i poet Ellen Dudley groans, sighs, pants, exults in the physical delight of love. Reading it can wake you to what you've tasted and what you long for.
A self-confessed "wild woman" -- although a bit less so now than a decade ago, when these cross-country and global adventures erupted -- Dudley is also a poet whose precision and narrative drive come together in tightly crafted lines. When I finished my second reading of the collection, I began pulling out other poets I think of as sexy: Adrienne Rich, Anne Sexton, then at a friend's suggestion, Sharon Olds, Dorianne Laux. "The Shipfitter's Wife," one of the most recognized Laux poems, catches a bit of the flavor of Dudley's work. But I found no close parallels.
When we women began to write about sex more colorfully in the 1970s, we saw much of our effort as feminist: to dare to speak about what had been silenced, and to take on the role of the seducer as much as the seduced. Audre Lord, Nikki Giovanni, others put women's thirst into words. But Dudley's audacity could not have been framed then, half a lifetime back. There were no words then for the combination of frank sexuality and personal power when it came in female form.
THE GEOGRAPHIC CURE (Four Way Books, 2007) opens with the strangest mother-daughter poem I've ever read, one in which the two women call bats to them and exult in the winged creatures flying through their hair -- "leaving us laughing with their wind on our scalps." This amazing countering of the standard "women terrified of bats getting tangled in their hair" is the only moment in which Dudley summons her daughter on the pages. But it is a terrific image of the reversals about to explode in the first section of poems. Here is part of "Tyele-Koula," which opens in Sarajevo and continues on the train past Belgrade with a "found man" in the poet's train compartment:
We had no common language and we didn't even kiss,
but I straddled him in the train car,
Sobranie in one hand, smoke
making halos of our heads in the sun,
she writes, spilling scents and savors (onion, potatoes, slivovitz, soft coal, sex) onto the page and erupting in an orgasm that is "both of us panting, jerking with the train."
Let's confess right away that poetry is not reportage -- I can't say for sure that Dudley pinned a strange man to the bench in a train in Europe -- but to frame these actions and images is to demonstrate both passion and determination. The "geographic cure" of the title, the notion that life can change if you change where you are, pushes the sequence of poems that follow, to driving through the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia ("blood pooled in your belly, skin sang and every truck became a hazard and a joy"), then to Eden, Vermont, then Dakota. Dudley's speaker stands under an outdoor sprinkler, accepting the wet translucence of her clothing, even driving through a darkened town with "shirt off, breasts flickering white in street / or truck lights and the guardrail singing by too close / because my hands have left the wheel." The stare of a passing truck driver only brings back the wild love that surges in memory:
Give me the body in the dark, the slick arc of c*ck sliding
up the thick, teeth in the tender skin of armput.
This is where I want to be let in -- to this body,
which, even up against me, still hovers, is imperfect, and will die.
[asterisk is not Dudley's but mine, for the sake of freedom of the press]
How far this is from the stickiness of romance novels or even the multiple images of the natural world layered into, say, "Vacation Sex" by Laux ("one long glorious night in a cabin in the woods / where our crooning and whooping started the coyotes / singing"). For Sharon Olds, in "Topography," the meeting of bodies is like the laying of one state's boundaries against another. But for Dudley, woman as actor releases sexuality from compulsion or invasion, into excitement and satiation.
There are some dark shadows: "The Road from Corpus Christi to Sangre de Cristo" paints a "Navy boys" gathering that includes a standard porn flick and that brings back memory of sex that includes threat: the 8 millimeters of the film echoing against the measure of a blue steel Beretta, and even the movement into darkness being spelled out as "I'll kill the lights." And another piece reveals how local "boys" in some nasty seacoast location make seagulls literally explode in the air, "rats with wings" that rain onto their torturers in fragments of feathers, blood, meat.
There are also segments where place exceeds person in importance: exploring Hawai'i, where long-time Vermont resident Dudley winters, and Mexico, and the lives of migrant laborers in the Southwest, swiped by racing cars as if they were stray dogs on a highway. "The color / of blood in any flag is red." The geographic cure on its own won't release a person from the nightmare of life, if that's what the focus has come to be.
Still, the opposite also applies: If it's joy you see, Dudley can point to more of it in the actions of a boy with Down's syndrome; in an earthquake and tidal wave smashing a town; in a scratch on the leg from a lover's fingernail "because you'd bitten and he thought you liked pain." I love the conclusion to "Equinox, New York," a poem that isolates the poet in her thinking and driving:
You're safe to make the fiction of your life,
to love the one you love the most: your want, your longing.
Dudley's forms race across this generous landscape in plentiful variety: couplets, four-line stanzas, blocky sonnet-length pieces, even some prose poetry. Yet the line clearly intensifies her narratives, forcing attention to bodies, feet, the glow of a swimmer's cap, salt on the tongue. Each piece wraps a person or couple or even group of travelers into a place and a wind and a thrill of embodied presence. In a sense, each can be cupped within a lover's two hands, or within a boat, or the car of a train slipstreaming over the landscape, with witnesses at the window unable to intercede in the scenes they pass. People approach, recede -- the heart pounds, sweat slickens the night. Here, from the prose poem "Train," is Dudley's own explanation of her geographic cure:
Tonight we'll be able to lie with the windows open and if the wind is right, around midnight we'll hear the train as it passes up the valley -- as it did the summer nights its whistle called us to the geographic cure: another time, another day, another continent perhaps and life would be better, lovers happier, the dead un-dead.
Though we cannot make the dead un-dead other than through what we write and speak, Dudley insists that we make life itself vivid and resonant. As in her final poem, her voice pelts us with calls that demand a response: "Where are you?" and "Come in."