January 2009

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore


Tinderbox Lawn by Carol Guess

In Tinderbox Lawn, Carol Guess’s collection of prose poems, desire is everywhere and violence molds itself into the textures of the everyday, “the clothes in your arms some damp thing dying.” Or, “caution tape for breakfast.” The surreal becomes real: “throw a sheet over the dead refrigerator.” The opening series, “Walk All Ways With Walk,” starts as a road trip away from childhood or familiarity and ends with the mundane and desperate toss-and-turn of a relationship headed into suffocation: “The night before you were screaming at me and throwing stuff. I don’t remember what stuff but it broke. When we woke up their house was for sale and you said Good and I said nothing because I deserved it, really, the sign on my chest.”

Guess delivers such dense, surprising descriptions, and then pulls away to hold the specificity aside so that you can feel, just for a moment, and then the text keeps rolling. The neighbors are moving because of the fighting next door, the sign on the narrator’s chest reads “For Sale.” What’s breaking? Stuff.

While most of the book is set in Seattle and the nearby Pacific Northwest, each time a place marker is mentioned -- 45th Street, Puget Sound, the West Seattle Bridge, Madison Market, Alaskan Way Viaduct -- it’s like some strange invader from a more delineated world. In “Dodge and Burn,” even the descriptions of tepid comfort expose the suburban urban dream as a collision-in-waiting: “Tabby cat curls under a monster truck, mini-monster preening in the mirrored wheels. In the vegetable garden, cracked eggs release snakes. An umbrella marries spokes from a hybrid bike…” Add to this an exploration of the desires and losses of the women who became victims of the Green River Killer (who strangled dozens of female sex workers in the 1980s), and the scene becomes shinier and spookier: “Heels clutter gutters over vegetable vendors. Leopard-print shawls stutter bicycle spokes. Silver thongs poke from window-boxed posies. The girls are swimming.”

In Tinderbox Lawn, the feelings unhinged by murder and loss remain in the water, in the earth, and in the air, infusing desire with a fever pitch -- it’s as if you can sense the dreams of the dead in the air, the air where everything seems to be broken or on fire: buildings, dishes, bodies, grass, and yes -- that tinderbox lawn. “She listens for rain through a skylight pointed in the wrong direction.” We, too, are waiting for that storied Seattle rain, but in these poems it never seems to fall.

At times the narration seems as unsure as we are, violence coming full circle but opening up into the reader’s imagination: “I shoved her I did and sheets for the story I couldn’t write fluttered over us, catching our throats as motes. She deserved it, fingering someone else’s hair into castles. All that blue and purple in the language we’d borrowed.” Here we glimpse the writer’s struggle with craft as a narrator’s struggle with inflicting pain -- a too-simple rhyme fades into the dreamy specificity of “fingering someone else’s hair into castles,” and then: “she made me very still, stiff blush heat of an oven door deciding whether or not to temperature.”

From page to page, section to section, narrators and perspectives shift, fracturing arousal into all these little parts leading back to dreamscapes: “You’re riding a mechanical bull. I mean -- you’re beautiful. You’re hanging out at the hotel Helena. I mean -- in hell… You’re using your fists to solve everyday problems. I mean -- your breasts to suggest sexual tension.” While sex constantly shakes these poems, it is also sex that grounds the narrative -- sex between women, or between women and queer figures who shift from female to male. In one section, suddenly one of the characters has a name, “Math Boi,” and we wonder why s/he exists in this delineated way when none of the other characters seem to. While it’s encouraging to see Guess naming fluid gender, this scene feels out of place in a book where most of the names are streets. More effective is the corner of Prospect and Holly where this particular section ends, “empty, save for the people tall buildings become.” This image brings us back to the beginning of the previous section, where a row of condos catches fire from the heat of unbounded desire: “Seattle had never been hotter.” We know these buildings, too, are destined to fall, and it’s this heat that serves as comfort.
Tinderbox Lawn by Carol Guess
Rose Metal Press
ISBN: 0978984854
60 pages

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore (www.mattildabernsteinsycamore.com) is the author, most recently, of the novel So Many Ways To Sleep Badly (City Lights 2008)