Dirty Laundry by Janet Buck (Vines Leaves Press, 2015)
Reviewed by John Amen
Janet Buck’s new collection, Dirty Laundry (Vine Leaves Press), reveals Buck at her most precise as she studies the nuances of her own experience, concurrently transcending them; in this way, further embracing confessionalism while also traversing beyond its restraints, becoming in the course of these poems no less that a contemporary every-woman. In the opening poem, “The View from Here,” Buck writes:
I’m in the room, yet not at all.
I sit, a scarecrow in a chair,
black arms, black wheels,
nightmares of my life in view.
Idle conversation flows,
the promise of a heavy rain so obvious….
The poet observes herself clearly and detachedly, as if she’s scrutinizing a ghost. She’s hardly present, bodily or energetically, merely a “scarecrow.” This theme, the “cumulative and nighmar[ish]” erosion of self, is one that Buck has explored consistently and vividly over the years. In “Craving a Map,” the closing poem of her 2003 collection, Tickets to a Closing Play, she wrote:
I’ve begged for sachet memories,
but some drawers stay
under lock and the key.
Then rust attacks, eats
the metal and the turn.
All my questions sat so long
they don’t know how to stand or walk.
The “sachet” grows empty; “drawers” can no longer be opened; “keys” and “locks” corrode. The speaker analogizes her perennial “questions” to atrophied legs, how they’ve lost their relevance or been forgotten, an experience exacerbated by the passing of time and the eradication of familiar references and associations. The poet is left only with the poem: “This page, this sweater with holes.”
Indeed, her 2004 collection, Beckoned by the Reckoning, also showcased Buck’s interest in impermanence and its impact on identity, the poems in this volume lamenting and elegizing the continuum of birth and death, the recognizable invariably replaced by the unrecognizable, disability a self-perpetuating syndrome. In a poem titled “Morsels,” she speaks of life after her mother’s death, addressing her father’s remarriage and rearrangement of the house:
He married again
and slowly the furniture changed.
One piece painted, one piece gone.
You fell away like cactus flowers
but thorns lived on in effigy.
Suddenly a different house,
a different street, every step
uphill and breathless wondering.
I sent my dolls on hunting trips
to find your lipstick in a drawer.
Of particular note is Buck’s image of her mother “[falling] away like cactus flowers”; in contrast, the “thorns”—unresolved conflicts, resentments, and ambivalence—”liv[ing] on in effigy,” dysfunction and convoluted grief constituting a mock tribute to her mother’s memory. The final two lines of the stanza show Buck at her most directorial, the speaker dispatching her troupe of “dolls” on “hunting trips” to find, the reader imagines, a trinket of “lipstick” that has perhaps rolled to the back of a “drawer.”
Buck is primarily an existential poet, focusing on the iterations, contours, and subtleties of human psychology rather than specific incidents, locales, or even portraiture; that said, she crafted what struck me twelve plus years ago, and still strike me today, as some of the most memorable “9/11 poems,” these pieces contributing significantly to the success of Tickets to a Closing Play. In several poems from that volume, Buck addressed the loss of a familiar world post 9/11, alchemizing the horrors of that day and its aftermath into striking imagery and newfound lapsarian references. In “Tea Leaves,” she writes: “Captions under CNN read/ tea leaves of blood, a crapshoot/ of corpses and coffins of dust,” conjuring a tableau of pagan rituals, barbarian justice, and tribal prophesies, the use of “crapshoot” choreographing carnage as a roll of Fate’s dice. 9/11 has rendered even the Fates mute and moot, eclipsed by savage motives manifesting in incomprehensible violence. If Buck mostly explores loss on an individual or micro-level, her 9/11 poems demonstrate her ability to embrace loss on a macro-level, these pieces both a reflection of a new world that would birth the Patriot Act and the Iraqi War, and a tribute to a past that would soon seem quaint compared to the national and global climate post 9/11. Buck uses the particular and topical to render a contemporary version of the loss of innocence, a dystopian manifesto for the 21st Century. If the metaphorical eating of the apple as depicted in Genesis is tantamount to “paradise lost,” 9/11, as Buck sees it, represents the impossibility of paradise ever being regained.
In Dirty Laundry, Buck continues to plumb the nature of suffering, her own and that of others, perhaps more expansively and descriptively than in previous collections. In “The Firm Eclipse,” she announces, “3 a.m.—I’m still awake—/ sweating like a water glass/ that sits so long the ice dissolves,” capturing the angst and agony of insomnia. The reader is forced to remain awake with Buck’s speaker; as she “sweats,” so do we. In “The Vee of Geese,” Buck presents a scene: “On our street, a little girl has lost her doll;/ it fell in ditches somewhere close and so we search/ like FBI hunting for a kidnapped child.” And later in the same poem:
I find her doll in piles of rocks,
dusting off the chestnut braids, straightening
pink checkered sleeves, put it in her tired arms.
She grabs my artificial thigh, asks me if it is a tree.
This is a masterful sequence, the “doll” employed as a surrogate for a flesh-and-blood girl. References to the FBI and “hunting for a kidnapped child” transform the relatively benign scenario into an ominous unfolding; the tableau has come to life; the psychodrama is no longer purely metaphorical. By the time the reader encounters the above-quoted four lines, the doll has morphed into a corporeal child (a la Ovid) and been retrieved, by the speaker, from “piles of rocks.” The speaker is briefly a savior of sorts, at least as the reader is concerned, able to restore or resurrect the doll, sparing the child from devastating grief. The addition of the “artificial thigh” is a skillful touch. Nothing, we are suddenly reminded, is real here; and yet, the unreal is ironically all that exists; therefore, by default, the unreal becomes the real.
In “Tooth Decay,” Buck deals with the pressing nature of illness, offering a touch of humor: “Too many other troubles brew/ with morning coffee every day.” “Best Friends” addresses the connection that can be experienced relationally: “Best friends have the very same bones,/ clean mirrors of anatomy.” “Liver Cancer: Stage IV” ostensibly frames a speaker’s willingness to help a sick friend—”Skip the feckless taps of texts,/ go hold her hand that drapes in weakened ivory/ from edges of her wrinkled bed”—though these lines might also represent a transcription of the speaker’s self-talk, the cheerleading we ad lib to motivate ourselves during difficult times. In “Apple Cores,” Buck writes:
Even in youth, I’ve always known
health is just a flock of pigeons
dining in Trafalgar Square.
A gasp comes from my surgeon’s mouth,
I take too many steps at once,
and suddenly the birds are gone.
In poem after poem, Buck illuminates the terrifying rapids we navigate as humans. In “Slapping the Hide of the Horse,” she writes, “A private, petty Armageddon rules my day.” In “Pretend I’m Just a Coconut,” she bemoans the jadedness of the world, writing, “Take me to a wiser island than this world.” And later in the same poem:
Take me where some twenty men
struggle through the midnight hours
to get a porpoise back to sea where it belongs.
Show me mangos resting in a wooden bowl,
ripening like virgin breasts….
“A Paltry Petition to God” is one of the more deeply revealing pieces in this collection, a poem in which the speaker reflects on how she was “Brought up not to cry or pray,” meanwhile navigating her own self-loathing, lying “in a dark cellar of hypocrisy,” finally realizing:
But this time stoic was a joke:
I stretched my mind in blind, deaf trust,
pleaded for maps to a gracious death
or a favor from God
the size of a barreling asteroid.
This poem marks the beginning of an extraordinary emotional arc in the collection, Buck accomplishing no less than a contemporary reconfiguration of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets (“Batter my heart, three-person’d God”), perhaps tapping the resoluteness consistently explored by Mary Oliver or embraced by Jane Kenyon in such pieces as “Otherwise,” though Buck’s realized wisdom is more fluid, less self-conscious, even seemingly incidental, and not a discovery in which the poet revels. If there’s a hard-won breakthrough for the speaker, as well as for Buck, the poet (and there certainly is), it’s not presented as such; there’s nothing of the pretentious in these lines; Buck has no desire to wax didactic or peddle aphorisms to the reader.
Dirty Laundry ends with a sober but ultimately triumphant poem that emerges seamlessly from the poems that preceded it, a final statement naturally arising, much like a spontaneous and synoptic manifesto, integrating and compacting the subtle paradoxes Buck has translated throughout this collection, indeed throughout her career, into original and compelling language (I quote the poem in its entirety):
The Shape of Sores
This brand begins deep inside a bone.
Its blossom hurts; it’s not a blushing peony.
The rubicund color comprised of coals,
burning in the hearth for months—
I feel them brew like healthy people smell
their morning coffee sitting in a clear carafe.
When bedsores break the tender flesh,
it’s way too late—
a signal that the end is near.
Simply look the other way, hold my hand;
it’s growing cold. Don’t bring me mirrors.
Forget the present agony—
remember all the miles I hiked
just to reach a waterfall.
My tailbone’s untouchable,
skin that’s met a stove on “high,”
stuck to burners, won’t release.
Don’t lift my gown. Don’t draw up plans
for fixing what’s unfixable. A fickle god
is running things and we are not.
Go read a poem—zero in on periods
I typed in bold in giant font.
Remember how my smile curved
in crescent moons.
Remember my blueberry eyes.
Buck is indeed a poet of paradoxes. She’s much like an actor who has abandoned her conception of self in order to transmit her possible self. The abovementioned Donne might suggest that Buck has been “battered” that she might “rise and stand.” Perhaps this is the humility of the veteran poet: she imparts her voice, her life, by writing herself into oblivion.
Vines Leaves Press
John Amen is the author of five collections of poetry: Christening the Dancer, More of Me Disappears, At the Threshold of Alchemy, The New Arcana (with Daniel Y. Harris), and, most recently, strange theater (New York Quarterly Books). His work has appeared in journals nationally and internationally and been translated into Spanish, French, Hungarian, Korean, and Hebrew. John is a frequent music reviewer for No Depression. He founded and continues to edit The Pedestal Magazine.