January 2007

Jason B. Jones


Black Box by Erin Belieu

Black Box is, according to the back cover, a set of "visceral, raw, violent" poems "written in the aftermath of marital infidelity." So it can't be good that I think I agree with her husband, at least in the collection's one poem about football:

there's the glorification of violence, the weird nexus
knitting the homo, both phobic and erotic,
but also, and worse, my parents in 1971, drunk as
Australian parrots in a bottlebush, screeching
WE'RE #1, WE'RE #1!
when the Huskers finally clinched the Orange Bowl,
the two of them
bouncing up and down crazily on the couch, their index
fingers jutting holes through the ubiquitous trail of smoke rings
that was the weather in our house,
until the whole deranged mess that was them,
my parents, the couch, their lit cigarettes,
flipped over backward onto my brother and me. My husband
thinks that's a funny story, and, in an effort to be a "good sport,"
I say I think it is, too.

I'm sorry, but that is a funny story, told humorously by a poet with an eye for comic detail. It's moments like this one -- where Erin Belieu is able simultaneously to register her frustration with marital miscommunication and wink at her complicity in it -- that make Black Box worth reading. (And that's despite Belieu's description of the poems as "channeled through Aimee Mann's Bachelor No. 2 and the remastered reissue of AC/DC's Back in Black," which doesn't sound like anything I'd want to hear.)

Black Box begins with a poem "On the Poet's Youth," proceeds directly to her marriage ("Epithalamion"), culminates in a long series of poems collectively entitled "In the Red Dress I Wear to Your Funeral," and ends on a reflective note. In the collection, "no one dies," but "In the end, what you loved moves / to Brooklyn. That's all." To some extent, that's a disappointment considering the question that opens Black Box: "When the man behind the counter said, 'You pay / by the orifice,' what could we do but purchase them all?" So provocative an opening, hearkening back to those "immortal times" when "Coke wasn't addictive yet, condoms prevented herpes, and men were only a form of practice for the Russian novel / we foolishly hoped our lives would become," is strangely comforting: Whatever else a poem expressing nostalgia for a sex doll suggests in a book inspired by infidelity, it surely suggests that sheer vituperation or humorless self-pity won't be on the cards.

Not that Belieu can't do vengeance. The second poem of "In the Red Dress I Wear at Your Funeral" imagines the speaker, hissing and spitting s's and t's: "undead and sulfurous. I stink like a tornado. / I lift my scarlet tail above your grave / and let the idiot villages take me / in torchlight / one by one by one..."  In general, though, the poems pay rueful homage to the partner's charm: "History will barely remember that you / were yellow and a cheat, a pixilated bivalve who consumed / as randomly as the thunderheads pass, and yet how strange, / how many of us loved you well."

Black Box's poems range from controlled, wry observations to lines that variously seem to fall apart or to shout; in so doing, they suggest the difficult knowledge infidelity affords. Watching a girl argue with her mother, Beliu notes "that veil of / gloss            burying her       kissing her       pretty               (I don't forget /             your fucking)             her            unkind mouth." The tension between the girl's glossy lips and her unkind mouth can't help but remind the speaker of that between her partner's charm and treachery. Except, she realizes, it's not really a tension: the gloss is a veil, which simultaneously hides and reveals the unkindness beneath, just as the charm implies the threat of betrayal. The enjambment at forget encapsulates Belieu's approach: It condenses contempt, pain, but also begrudging affection.

It's possible to overstate the "raw" elements of Belieu's poetry, especially given the attention to form evident here. She has a penchant for blunt, over-the-top images ("If I was the black / diamond of your narcoleptic dreams, then / she was the wish you make for more / wishes, a vicuña-lined pussy / with extra slots for your credit cards"); this is true. But the poems' self-awareness is too canny to be satisfied with clichéd vocabularies, whether maudlin or angry. The last poem turns away from "the same betrayals" to listen to a shrub's flowers "arguing / for sweetness": an argument running also throughout Black Box.

Black Box by Erin Belieu
Copper Canyon Press
ISBN: 1556592515
80 pages