Online Edition: Fall 2004

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What Is This Thing Called Love?

Kim Addonizio

W.W. Norton & Company ($21.95)

by Mike Chasar

Despite all of the drugs, booze, and sex in Kim Addonizio's fourth book of poems, What Is This Thing Called Love?, the collection becomes a fascinating sort of love poem for the speaker's daughter. The book's narrator tries hard to convince us otherwise, however, drawing a picture of herself as a "bad girl" whose liberated sexual and chemical appetites leave men at her mercy and crumpled in her wake. "She's the one sleeping all day," Addonizio writes, the one who "wakes up / at the sound of a cork twisted free," who "wants / to stand on the rim of the glass, naked," and who sneaks out at night in her silk dress while the good girl is "crouched in a corner, coming undone."

Half of the poems in the book (and 16 of the final 19) mention the drugs or alcohol she's done, and she goes to great lengths to convince us of her sex drive—she takes a younger lover and gets tied up, among other things, within the first ten poems, and concludes the book on a virtual orgy. In the end, though, the book's speaker talks the bad-girl talk more than she walks the bad-girl walk. Most of her exploits (like getting tied up) are fantasies, and while she does a lot of relatively chaste kissing—the book begins with "First Kiss" and ends with "Kisses"—the poems fall fairly silent when it comes to the issue of sex, as if making love were a self-evident act needing little elaboration. For a bad girl who insists at one point that "fucking" is "holy, / a psalm, a hymn," sex might have as many variations as Eskimos see in snow, but more often than not Addonizio's subordinated good-girl discretion gets the better of her.

We come to realize, then, that the book's "bad girl" is not a whole lot more than a blustery superhero persona protecting the inner good girl from real life insecurities, regrets, worries, emotions, and fears. The bad girl and good girl come together, however, in the figure of the speaker's daughter, for while rarely mentioned, she is present in the speaker's erotic experiences that open and close the book. In the book's first poem, kissing a new boyfriend makes the speaker remember breastfeeding her daughter. Similarly, as she imagines getting kissed simultaneously by everyone she's ever kissed in the book's final poem, she explains: "My breasts tingle the way they did when my milk came in after the birth, / when I was swollen, and sleepless, and my daughter fed and fed until I pried / her from me and laid her in her crib."

Framed in such a way, What Is This Thing Called Love? becomes a stimulating and erotic address from mother to daughter. While the bad girl and her lovers probably get too many pages overall, it's the description of love from mother to daughter that makes for the most interesting reading in the book.

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Fall 2004 Table of Contents