Kim Bridgford

"Like a Pristine Pearl, That Oyster Bead": Jennifer Reeser's Sonnets from the Dark Lady and Other Poems

Sonnets from the Dark Lady and Other Poems
Jennifer Reeser
148 pages | Saint James Infirmary Books 2012 | $13.48

few years ago, I was one of the first readers of Jennifer Reeser's Dark Lady sonnets. Within moments, I knew the work was extraordinary: the perfect match for Reeser's wit and style, and an idea with immediate appeal. In the hands of a lesser writer, the concept would have fallen flat, or seemed too familiar. Yet all of Reeser's talents gathered and were called upon, in order to have a conversation with one of the most famous sonnet sequences in history. Jennifer Reeser has never lacked poetic courage, for she is known for selecting from a wide palette of diction and taking on a range of guises. However, in this sequence everything comes together in one breathtaking sweep.

Reeser is adept at delivering strong emotion, and she loves literature, Louisiana, and drama. Like the languid and intense tastes of New Orleans itself, Reeser's style will take you by surprise. Sensual. Silly. Arch. Unbelievably sad. Or as Paul Stevens writes in the introduction to the book, "The 'Other Poems' of the collection's title appeals to me for other reasons too of course, for example, its fertile links with French symbolism, channeled through a kind of Louisiana Gothic; and the authenticity of its passion."

Such preoccupations are not new to Reeser. For those who have followed her career--from the award-winning An Alabaster Flask, to Winterproof, both published by Word Press--it is part of her signature style to move from topics as diverse as Applebee's, to a miscarriage, to the Twin Towers, to a letter for Dr. Frankenstein. From the beginning she has been an advocate for formal poetry, and, like Dana Gioia, she makes use of the full range of the poetic tradition. As she writes in "Impromptu Reply to a Critic of the Sonnet" (An Alabaster Flask):

Continue, by all means--blame fourteen lines
as one more shackle to enslave the earth.
Proclaim our art's an exploit of designs
whose character in height besets its girth.
Then, when you've finished, call it cruel and odd
when men move freely in the schemes of God.

Two ways in which Reeser delights are in the quick turn of phrase and the extended riff. I was captivated by seeing the unexpected within the expected: "the heart between its feathers still unbroken" ("As Always"), "The sky is violet-olive with a hurricane" ("As Van Gogh Must Have Seen"), or "there is a heady price / for balancing the brink of paradise / here in the sultry smirk of Baton Rouge" ("The Eye Passes").

She is witty too. For example, she uses zeugma with skill and grace: "that handbill knave / Vainglorious in tarts and aftershave." And her parody of Sylvia Plath's "Daddy" is hilarious. Once a reader encounters "Sylvia Plath's Chicken Crosses the Road," it is difficult to read "Daddy" with the same sense of foreboding: "Farmyard, I have come to loathe you." After all, Sylvia Plath herself said her poem was light verse, and Jennifer Reeser takes her at her word.

Reeser's antecedents are Millay and Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams and Charles Baudelaire. She is both literary and colloquial (although she errs on the side of the literary), and writes as if she thought her heart would break. That is an appealing combination in a world that affects a decided indifference. In terms of contemporary poets, she is reminiscent of A. E. Stallings, Dana Gioia, and Julie Kane. However, there is always an overlay of gothic and the high style. And she is a sensualist. As Reeser herself writes, "There is no shame in touch for texture's sake" ("Self-Portrait as Marie Laveau, Voodoo Queen of New Orleans").

The world, in the end, is Jennifer Reeser's oyster. Given her allegiance to New Orleans, this might mean eating the oysters or wearing their pearls:

Across its base lay offerings, cologne
From Paris, garish beads and bayou mosses;
Sweets, carnival doubloons, a chicken bone,
Hydrangeas and foam cups with drinking straws,
Five-dollar bills, unfolded and wind-blown;
Elastic trinkets, plastic dime-store kickshaws,
Lead pencils with a blue-ink fountain pen,
What might have been a roll of bandage gauze. ("At the Crypt of Marie Laveau")
And in this small riff she reminds me of Robert Browning and Robert Frost:
She rested in the crevice of a socket
internal in the shed's devolving brick,
set high, jet-figured, lacquer-legged and thick. ("Widow")

I also love the confident, almost showoffy, way she uses a range of poetic forms. She sashays through couplets--"For wealthy, poorer, best and better, worse, / honeymoon to formaldehyde and hearse"; "through twin and foster, stepson, only child, / from crackers in the sheets to satin-styled" ("Till Death"); dances through quatrains (with poetic feet and real ones) ("Her Feet"); and takes off in Dickinsonian iambic tetrameter quatrains with an aabb rhyme scheme in "Instructions for the Cemetery Cake," underscoring "one man per slice." Indeed.

Although it is difficult to get enough poems by Jennifer Reeser, I might have organized this book differently. I am not sure the rough alphabetical organization is the best way to showcase the work. Because she is good at so many styles and forms--and she is an admirable translator besides--there can be breaks in the unity of the collection. Then, too, it must have been difficult to decide where to place the Dark Lady sonnets in the collection. What an astonishing book--or chapbook--all on their own! Yet I would have put them first. While Jennifer Reeser already has a considerable reputation, they are the poems for which she will be known, and they deserve to open the book.

It is hard to decide on favorites in the Shakespeare sequence because they are all so good. They are good for a range of reasons: toe-tinglingly good rhyme, a mixture of Shakespearean and contemporary turns of phrase, and a refreshing woman's understanding of the world. In our current world of bifurcating politics, it can be easy to forget that multiplicities of perspective shape and nuance relationships of all kinds. And it is exciting to get an answer--and a poetic collaboration--across the centuries between two artists of different genders, especially since we have waited a few hundred years for it.

Here are some surprising examples of rhyme, the first in a couplet: "Thy sport coat's tweed mélange of silhouette / And loosened negligence of etiquette" (2). I laughed out loud with delight when "hot-toddied" rhymed with "disembodied" (4). And this tease of revenge is memorable: "I script for thee internal, restless travel, / Blinded as flying vermin, vacant rooks, / And Woman's ever-batting, vapid looks" (13). Other rhymes with unexpected delight include "signature"/"garniture" (20) and "awake" and "sheik" (130).

I also love the way she moves effortlessly from Elizabethan to contemporary diction, which keeps the poems both old and new. It is difficult to write a good imitation because one always wonders how much to keep from the original. However, she maintains this balancing act throughout the sequence.

One of my favorites is 16, which I originally published:

"Those lips of thine that have profaned their scarlet ornament. . ."

My lips aren't ornamented in bright scarlet
Or crimson lipsticks, luminous of shade
And drama, for the harlequin, the harlot,
The hallmark. Dateless Ruby is the name
For this specific recipe of red.
If it be true their color has appealed
To untrue love, to burglarize some bed
And to false lovers make their pledges--sealed
Or loosened--I at least would have them known
For what they truly are, a-spread with jewel,
Without a date, so as it were alone,
And at their darkest, crowing--if not cruel--
With lasting stain elaboration, though
You smear, in clear-cut, ruby Cupid's bow.
Reeser makes us entirely believe in her Shakespearean diction--as she so often brings elaborate diction to her other poems. Yet when she moves from the run of "luminous of shade / And drama, for the harlequin, the harlot, / The hallmark" to the name of the lipstick, "Dateless Ruby," and calls it a "specific recipe of red," the reader blinks and smiles. Any woman who has purchased lipsticks with such provocative names will understand the nuance. This is just one example of the Dark Lady's textured sensibility with regard to the world: she knows it down to the color of her lipstick.

At the same time, there is a worldly wise air to the poems, and there is depth in the relationship. As Reeser writes in 17, "Love, I am not thy mother, but thy match." There is both a difficulty and an openness, for, as the Dark Lady admits, it is "As though I spoke with gemstones in my teeth" (9). This may also be a way of describing what Jennifer Reeser does so well. Although some thing are difficult to express, there is a glittering jeweldom to them.

Her sonnet 7 both speaks to love and to her art:

"But slave to slavery my sweet'st friend must be?"

No erudite professor speaking Persian,
No boy Bohemian, no bantam dancer,
No market magnate dangling an excursion
Before me through the Tropic band of Cancer
By silver ports, no squire in English suede
Mounting to hounds about his privileged lawn,
No lank composer with some strange aubade
Commencing whence I turn to him at dawn,
No friend of thine, no friend of mine, no Rhodes
Scholar, nor Colossus of the same,
No mathematician bearing lyric codes
To solve my single status, bears a name
Or face but thine--nor else to the above--
I come by, call or covet, making love.
After running through possible relationships--and male poets--she gets down to business and makes love and art. In her signature style, this Dark Lady writes her sonnet, and makes her name.


Kim Bridgford is the director of the West Chester University Poetry Center and the West Chester University Poetry Conference. As editor of Mezzo Cammin, she was the founder of The Mezzo Cammin Women Poets Timeline Project, which was launched at the National Museum of Women in the Arts and will eventually be the largest database of women poets in the world. The author of five books of poetry, including Hitchcock's Coffin: Sonnets about Classic Films, she has recently traveled to Bhutan with her collaborative partner, visual artist Jo Yarrington, to complete a three-book series on journey and sacred space. She has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and on NPR. Other earlier work in Mezzo Cammin: 2010.2, 2009.2, 2009.1, 2008.1.


Kim Bridgford

> A panel on The Mezzo Cammin Women Poets Timeline has been accepted at this year's Southern Women Writers Conference.
Rhea Nowak: I am always intrigued by the relationships between clarity and chaos, rhythm and awkwardness, mark and intention, presence and absence.
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