Online Edition: Summer 2003

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Rouge Pulp

Dorothy Barresi

University of Pittsburgh Press ($12.95)

by Hannah Brooks-Motl

Rouge Pulp is Dorothy Barresi's third book of poems, and it is by far her best yet. Eschewing the clumsy and often prosaic narrative structures that fill her previous book (The Post Rapture Diner) and dot her first (All of the Above), Rouge Pulp marries Barresi's ear for witty, fiery language with a series of compact, concise, and fairly lyrical poems that showcase the alternately serious and sardonic voice at the center of the book's universe.

Barresi's first two books were notable for her reliance on personal narrative--one rarely doubted that the person behind the voice was anybody other than Dorothy Barresi, the events anything other than what had actually taken place on the family vacation in 1969. In Rouge Pulp, Barresi also tells stories from her life (the death of her mother provides the book's central focus, and there are a handful to her infant son, Dante), but they're less constricted by the narrative mode. For example, "At the Posh Salon Called Ultra" could have easily turned into a heavy-handed indictment of cultural standards demanding women remain beautiful at any cost, but instead it is just as infectious, guilty, and pleasurable as a trip to "the Posh Salon" really might be, even as the stylist informs you that

... you are worth saving; I assure you,
we have seen worse.

And though it is far from cheap
dreaming yourself into our fashion,

cheer up--it is very becoming.
Girgio, Reynald, Coco--a sweep of curls in the dustpan, clank,

and the past is your natural color.
Pucker up. Bring me the big rollers.

When the sham world blows you kisses,
the real world knows you at last.

The poems in Rouge Pulp are more formally ambitious than anything in Barresi's first two books, as well as more allusive. These are crowded poems: Duke Ellington shows up in a poem about Sylvia Plath's father, "The Heaven of Otto Plath" (and Plath shows up herself on two separate occasions); Hart Crane is mentioned, as are Theodore Roethke, Lenny Bruce, Jackie Kennedy, Richard Speck, Bobby Kennedy, the New Critics, and, in one of the best poems in the book, the stripper Lily St. Cyr. That poem, "Glass Dress," is a good example of the new sort of poetic techniques influencing Barresi's most recent work. The declaration that opens the poem--"Lily St. Cyr is dead"--gets repeated throughout the poem, and not always where you'd expect it, creating a dirge-like refrain whose flatness works perfectly with the glittery, gaudy images Barresi swirls around it:

Her generating curves,
her spirals,
her vector rotation of planes and onstage bubble baths
are the swellest immorality for those
wrecked and crippled boys
in the front row.
Lily St. Cyr is dead.
Knock back a whisky. Dim the spot.

The poem's also about the end of innocence, about GIs returning from the war and an America full of "vast warehouses of exhausted capital," and it falls flat only when Barresi over-explains herself, giving us the meaning of "ecdysiast" ("'ecdysis' meaning 'shedding,' / or 'nothing.'") when the simple rejoinder that follows, "It's true," would have been enough.

There are other such moments in Rouge Pulp when Barresi's wish to make sure we get it interrupts the flow of the poem. These mostly occur near the end of the book when the poems begin to sound more and more like the Post Rapture Barresi who hasn't quite loosed herself from the sentence and syntax, from relying on prose sense to do the work that the Barresi of the first half of Rouge Pulp has discovered can be accomplished via aural effects, line breaks, and, at times, inference. Take, for example, "Fifties Song (or, We Are All Born under Eisenhower)," a poem notable in Barresi's corpus for its utter lack of narrative and reliance on anaphora:

Unto the altar of argyle,
Unto the Lenny Bruce of nod,

Unto the spondee of babies,
Unto the lawn mower of fear,

The poem ends: "Unto the bowling alley of family love, / which is none-of-your-goddamned-business. // Unto red meat and milk." And it works--as Barresi's poems often do--as a look back on a baby-boomer childhood through the shattered lens of the present. What Barresi's poems don't often do is use the line as a unit upon which the poem is built. Other poems in Rouge Pulp do similar list-like work less effectively, partly because they don't rely on readily available cultural markers--tweaking, refuting, or aggrandizing them as in "Fifties Song"--and instead depend upon conventional notions of mother-daughter, mother-infant relationships, which often slip into sentimentality.

Still, much of Rouge Pulp is great: innovative, exciting, and most importantly fun (e.g., "Sock Hop with the New Critics"). In her best poems Barresi manages to be as accessible as she is verbally and aurally interesting. The poems want to say things, to make points and spin social commentary, and a handful of them do so with flash and wit and even daring. The best parts of Rouge Pulp significantly complicate Barresi's interest in personal narrative and the cultural framework that influences and orders an individual life. The book is a formal grab-bag: there are four poems that use anaphora, two dramatic monologues, a prose poem, an elegy, and a surreal collage poem ("Little Dreams of War," probably the least Barresi-like poem Barresi has ever written). There's much to be admired in a poet who, two books and two major prizes into her career, displays such a willingness to play with a proven formula, to take risks with her verse and experiment with form and structure. Dorothy Barresi isn't a "new" poet, and Rouge Pulp doesn't herald a new talent, but the book should stand as a model to other poets who find themselves stuck in the rut of their own first or second successes. For all its unevenness, it's an energetic, highly enjoyable collection of poems from a poet sure to go somewhere different next time as well.

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Summer 2003 Table of Contents