Radish King by Rebecca Loudon
Radish King marks the first book of poems I've read that has made me want to call in for penicillin. These poems are marked off as "Poems That Burn" -- simultaneously a description and a warning label -- which seems just about right. Some of them probably burned coming out; certainly it's the case that they burn a little while you're reading them; many of the images and lines linger troublingly afterwards. Rebecca Loudon's second collection of poems frequently finds itself "On the Delirious Track," fascinated by "that lovely erotic flaw / (the importance of the lopsided)." And if her poems are disorienting and confusing, which they can be, their humor, rhythm, surprise, and obsessive repetitions can be mesmerizing.
There's an odd way in which Radish King looks askance at The Waste Land. I wouldn't say it's a parody, exactly -- Loudon doesn't seem that interested in Eliot. But there are connections and revisions that seem interesting. Eliot's modernist arrangement of the Fisher King legend is counterbalanced by the Radish King, and by a woman with "those little poems like breath tumbling / out, no myth, mostly truth, such a bother." If at the end of Eliot's poem "these fragments I have shored against my ruins," here there's "a beautiful thing who just wants to understand / and she doesn't, she doesn't understand but knows, / finally, what the owls have come to say." These could be coincidences, but the most striking connection is the way both poets juxtapose burning and sexuality. In The Waste Land, Eliot was concerned to show that sexuality in modern London was, at best, arid and lifeless, the sort of thing that might lead to a moral "burning burning burning burning" that one inherits from Augustine and from Buddhist teachings.
If the poems in Radish King burn, there's at least some chance the characters started the fire. At the end of "Unobserved Fire," a girl "rode to the swamp, tipped her bicycle on its side, shiny as an infection, and set the trees aflame." The hands of another speaker "reek of gasoline, the smell leaking into albumen" as she peels an egg; in the next poem, "The Age of Fevers," we're reminded, "(don't / forget the gasoline)." "The Age of Fevers" kaleidoscopically jumbles a car fire, a firefighter's reaction, and a woman left at home -- perhaps the firefighter's wife, but perhaps the one who started the fire. Or perhaps someone who didn't start, but rather endured a fire: "You found a spider on your sweater, / swore it was God's voice speaking / from the small brown body, / not your fever, not the bonfire." The difficulty is that "No one ever tells you about burn -- / catheter, greenstick fracture, / jalapeno oil on a torn nail." And at the end of the day, "All she can do is burn." The force of Eliot's burning arises from its moral/ontological claims about human nature, sexual difference, sin, and modernity. Loudon takes a wholly different approach, and the exigency of her poems stems from the physical and psychic threats her characters endure.
Radish King oozes with eros, with the idea that "Everything is different once you touch it, / put your hand on it, feel its peculiar oil / seeping out, erotic transfer, / mouth breathing into mouth." There are poems about safe words, about shoe fuckers, about "showing him her tongue, / showing him the seed," about the disposability of lovers -- in short, about all the ways sex and love and desire skew our everyday perceptions of ourselves and the world. The poems are discomfiting in many ways, and yet they are hardly sex-hostile. Instead, they work constantly to remind us of the differing ways that experiences register themselves in our minds and on our bodies.
This may sound a little dour, but Loudon's poems are frequently funny, whether darkly or no. Frequently this humor emerges around mass culture. It's a Wonderful Life turns into "Everyone's Favorite Holiday Suicide"; "Taxidermy Primer" is kicked off with a Psycho allusion; and Loudon takes a turn as Laura Ingalls, when "The best parts of me were sewn shut," and "Lark drank poison and we just stood there."
The great phrase from Radish King is "rogue proximity," which I think encapsulates the bewildering appeal of Loudon's poems. Estranged from reality, or at least from common experience, they nonetheless are uncannily intimate, and manage to provoke even on re-reading. At times ravishing, Radish King earns a certain fealty from its readers.
Radish King by Rebecca Loudon