University of Tampa Press ($14)
by Denise Low
“Flick the house from your eye and hurry away” begins Michelle Boisseau’s most recent book, Among the Gorgons. This distortion of reality in “The Crisp Inscription” is a way to describe skips of memory. The image of a huge house becomes a miniature irritant, reduced to a mote in the eye. The poet explains, “Stop wondering what your room is like / where you all slept together and woke.” Boisseau makes places of childhood unfamiliar, eerie in their vague resemblance to reality. Even the chimney of the poet’s childhood home shows odd aging, as it “wears a rusty brace.”
This opening poem foretells the direction of the entire book, in which memory is a surreal place. An Alice in Wonderland sensibility continues through the collection by Boisseau, a University of Missouri-Kansas City professor. With precise language, she presents a topsy-turvy cosmos.
“Mom Was a Cactus” begins as an unlikely comparison between an elderly parent and a spiny desert plant. The poem develops its own logic: “Cactuses / aren’t lovable but many admire / how they thrive on teaspoons of rain.” The tough mother of the title raised nine children while caring for a grandparent in a wheelchair; the cactus is her perfect totem.
Every poem has surprises, a practice that sends images spinning to the reader at a fast rate. Death is “the final privacy” in the elegy “To a Dying Difficult Man.” Rather than the public funeral, death inverts; it is a private, unknowable moment of mortality. Continuous inversions like this in Among the Gorgons jar readers into engagement with the poems.
A bonus for aficionados of verse is the virtuoso use of poetic patterns; Boisseau, also an editor of poetry books, is so adept that she invents her own forms. Some resemble villanelles, with repeating lines that link content to the rhythm of song. “Children Visiting Hospice” is made of fifteen interlocking lines that repeat like a children’s jump rope chant. It begins:
The shiny hallway is a river
that asks to be skipped down.
In the lounge, picture puzzles.
In a corner of the fish tank
a treasure chest burbles and bores.
The fish look ahead a few inches.
The last stanzas piece themselves together with earlier lines and new ones. The fish, river, shiny, hallway—all are rearranged to echo the beginning of the poem in sound and sense.
The poet’s metaphors reset reality. In “Window Body,” a disabled person’s cane is the new center: “The universe / has no edge and no center, / so stab the ground with your cane / and make your axis.” Nothing is ordinary in this writer’s view. Each poem is a Fabergé egg, unique and richly complex.