February 2007

Jason B. Jones

poetry

Lizzie Borden in Love: Poems in Women's Voices by Julianna Baggott

While cribbing for this review, I stumbled upon a forum sponsored by the Lizzie Borden society, where the members were trying to suss out whether Julianna Baggott's new collection would really be about the accused murderess, or whether Baggott is merely capitalizing on Borden's fame to drive sales. Who knew that the name was so profitable? At any rate, I can end the suspense: There are three poems about Borden, fewer than about Camille Claudel or Mary Rockwell, but more than about Mary Todd, Marie Laurent Pasteur, Marie Curie, Monica Lewinsky, Helen Keller, or any of the other women to whom Baggott lends voice in this collection. If posters to the Lizzie Borden Society forum will perhaps be disappointed, other readers will perhaps be taken by the range of sympathies Baggott offers.

Baggott's a skillful ventriloquist: Even though many of these poems share similar complaints, they sound appropriately different. There's no mistaking Katherine Hepburn and Lizzie Borden in these poems. But for all its skill, Lizzie Borden in Love is frequently a safe and somewhat obvious book of poems. The series about Mary Rockwell, for example, is almost a self-parody. We find Mary bemoaning the fact that she is introduced as "Mary, the wife / of Norman Rockwell -- but I don't hear wife -- / I hear leg," or telling her son that, though it is her "job... to return fan mail," in fact, "in our cardigans, bathrobes, boat shoes / we are all dying of pierced hearts / in the light of this rosy day." That something disquieting lurked beneath the surface of, and was produced by, Rockwellian America hardly counts as news; indeed, it surely amounts by now to a commonplace.

The safety of the poems takes two forms. First, as we've seen, the nature of the protest isn’t especially unruly. The second form is more frustrating: The poems don't really try to capture internal struggle, division, or self-blindness on the part of their speakers. (This is true even when paranoid fantasies are being described, as in "Mary Todd on Her Deathbead.") To put this slightly differently, these are not Robert Browning-style dramatic monologues: Lizzie Borden in Love has no interest in anatomizing or unpacking its speakers' perspectives; it simply wants to give them voice. Sympathetically. But that's a problem: For if we agree that the most important conflict in the speakers' lives is with the society that silences him, then, in effect, we reduce them to that conflict. Our whole interest in them arises from the fact that they've been silenced. 

A bit perversely, then, lending a sympathetic voice to these women reduces them to ciphers -- a risk acknowledged in the very first poem, "Lori Schappell, a Conjoined Twin, Addresses the Kmart Cashier Who Eyes Her With Too Much Sympathy."  But even here we are supposed to -- wait for it! -- sympathize with the conjoined twin. Even the stray detail that the antagonist is a "Kmart cashier" seems designed to get us to share Lori Schappell's sneer. Lori Schappell and her sister Reba are well-known figures (Reba plays country music) whose distinct personalities -- despite sharing significant portions of their brain -- has pointed up how poorly we understand the interplay between brain and expressed personality.  Baggott condenses this beautifully at the start of the poem:

You don't know the forest
of two minds bound by weeds
grown from one to the other,
the synapses like bees
                 cross-pollinating
our honeyed brain.
When my sister sings,
The bones of my skull are her resonance.

Capturing both the sister's frustration with this cashier and the imaginative ways one can metaphorically transmogrify the body, the poem unabashedly makes their situation seem normal, even appealing. And from a certain point of view, that's obviously appealing, and an important first step. But it ought to leave us wanting more, too. That additional step, wherein the poems show us something about the speaker that the speaker herself doesn't understand, is too frequently missing in these poems. As a result, they read a bit like set pieces, rather than lively poems. 

Lizzie Borden in Love: Poems in Women's Voices by Julianna Baggott
Southern Illinois University Press
ISBN: 9780809327256
71 pages