Monday, June 16, 2008

Karen Harryman: Poetry of Transition

The Black Goat imprint of Akashic Books is specially reserved by Nigerian author Chris Abani for publishing well-crafted poetry with "a proportional represetation of female, African, and other non-American poets." Karen Harryman fits in the first category -- growing up working class in the South (Kentucky, Bourbon country), then migrating with her lover to Los Angeles. Young, blunt, and adept at colorful narrative, Harryman spins poems of place and of the transition from one side of the country to another; from nearly-country to absolutely city; and from hopeful and bold single girl to someone who realizes both the cost and value of staying in a relationship.

So what she writes in AUTO MECHANIC'S DAUGHTER are not "love poems," but poems of a willingness to love. I like the determined blunt optimism and joy here. She tackles loving herself, and being in love with life. Truth comes in bright flavors and colors, with grit that catches in teeth.

The poem "Note to Jesus" begins in church; she's touching hands illicitly with a boy, and watching a girlfriend try to cope with a fussy baby. "Jesus, I'd do things differently now," she asserts:

... We'd leave the babe
with deacons, tear out in a ragtop, a Mustang
on two wheels, rip sleeves and collars from our blouses,
tie shirttails in knots under our tits. We'd dance
to Red Rider in the front seat, let the car drive itself.

And it flashes with such delight on the page that coming later to the poem "Convalescence" is shocking: a poem that ranges from oily hairbrushes to dirty pajamas and aging in a wheelchair, wrapping up, "I don't remember the poem as a young thing, / only this burden having its say, roundabout, / lodged tumor-thick, pressing agaist my words." Whoa, who changed the music here?

Harryman is equally direct about whether love is all good, or sometimes a trap soaked in two people's disillusionment. Her version of a couple touring in London includes a long period of not liking her partner -- "The truth is we stepped off the train together / and went on loving what it is that we don't hate." Ouch. And yes.

The most vivid poems here share the brashness of Ellen Dudley's Geographic Cure, of Anne Sexton's flirtations, of love and lust that mingle and don't hide from the light. And they are flavored with Kentucky or Los Angeles in turn.

My favorite is already "Bourbon Fire," opening with a lightning-struck distillery viewed by a young woman nearly ready to leave home:

I've forgotten everything else.
Spent most evenings with Bobbie Jo Curd
draining beers, shooting pool, throwing darts,
flirting with truck drivers and college boys,
driving home with the top down, long scarves wrapped around our heads,

iced Makers & Cokes sweating between our thighs.
We were ablaze as you might have been, hours between work and waking
when all you wanted was a piece of the life you'd dreamed of
or all but ruined -- what you had coming
because you were good,
because you were beautiful, spilling all you knew.

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