Review of what is this thing called love (Book) by Kim Addonizio
June 16, 2009
Review of what is this thing called love by Kim Addonizio
With a Guggenheim Fellowship, two NEA Fellowships, plus a Pushcart, Ms. Addonizio’s accolades would seem to speak for themselves. Still, since she will be selecting the poems to be included in best new poets 2009, we thought we should pick up something of hers and have a look for ourselves. We bought our copy of what is this thing at a second-hand bookstore, so it did not come with a pistol attached as a it would have had we purchased the book new. No, this is too harsh, although Addonizio is probably the most frustrating poet we‘ve tackled so far. It’s not that her work is inaccessible; her work is readily understandable or at least rarely oblique. But whereas Hopler is vapid and Lerner is ridiculous, Addonizio is painfully narcissistic. There’s little room for the poem with her ego in the mirror. And yet some of it’s good. To put it anecdotally, this is a book that I literally threw down on the floor in disgust, but I picked it up again. In the end, you have to decide whether the bad outweighs the good or vice versa. The trouble is, I discovered, that the book is back-loaded with the cringe-making material, turning what could have been purposefully astringent into something gone sour.
But even from the beginning there is a carelessness in her writing. Take this example from “What Was”:
“Nearby, a man decants / a few notes from his tenor sax, honking his way / through a tune meant to be melancholy.”
Decant means to pour slowly for a specific purpose and connotes a certain skill or at least attentiveness. It certainly isn’t synonymous with “dump.” And yet the man is somehow both decanting the notes and honking through them, screwing up the would-be melancholy air of the song. There is a bald amateurishness in such a mistake.
In “31-Year-Old Lover” Addonizio compares a younger lover‘s body to a stick of cold butter (anyone else have county fair butter sculptures pop into your head?) and lists the muscles that particularly appeal to her. The list includes “hip flexors,” oddly the one time that she avoids the anatomical name. But unlike the others in the list, hip flexors are not superficial muscles. Unless she’s flayed her boy toy or he’s a bona fide bodybuilder / Olympic sprinter, it would be very difficult for her to perceive fine development in these muscles. Additionally, while hip flexors can of course be strengthened, their flexibility is more an indicator of impressive fitness. But details like this come from knowing what you’re talking about rather than glancing at a color-coded diagram at the gym. The choice to use the common parlance “hip flexors” is also interesting when juxtaposed with the decision to use “gastrocnemius” — an almost ludicrously unpoetic word for “calf.”
But far worse than the occasional technical slip up or seemingly bizarre word choice, there is a mirror-enraptured voice that pervades the book. “Ex-Boyfriends” reduces all ex-boyfriends to people traveling “familiar routes of loneliness,” because, naturally, they’ve lost the greatest thing they have ever had or could ever have — Kim. The thin veil of the second person does little to gauze-over such flagrant narcissism. “Romance” offers another obnoxious example of wonderment-at-self that becomes Addonizio’s hallmark. After semi-vulgar reminiscences about adolescent sexual experiences, she writes, “still, here you are, in middle age, stunned / to find yourself in a sushi bar in California / with a man kneeling before you.” Oh gawd. Well, while Kim’s busy being amazed with herself and her life, would anyone like some coffee? Maybe some ginger to quell the nausea? In “Augury” she’s infatuated with her daughter’s overwhelming sex appeal. Really, it never ends with some people.
But to conclude on a positive note, “You Don’t Know What Love Is” uses sex and death imagery in a novel, compelling way. “Cat Poem” has a strange voice, but the tangentiality is arresting rather than glib, and the piece succeeds in eliciting a profound feeling of sympathy. “California Street” entirely avoids the self-absorption that prevails in most of the book, which is refreshing. It hints at a sensitivity that perhaps helped her win her heap of accolades. “One Nation Under God” — what can I say other than I like it. The poem starts off a little slow but builds and builds until the accumulated energy at the end makes the final couplet hit like a ball peen hammer. No, I’m not going to give it away.
So yes, this book of poetry flooded me with passion. Three quarters of that was anger and disgust, but it was passionate anger and disgust. Which might not be so awful, when I think about how lukewarm most poetry is these days and how often my reaction is merely a tepid “oh.”