Someone Else's Wedding Vows by Bianca Stone
Bianca Stone is multitalented, both poet and artist, and despite her youth, her name is found in some of the best literary magazines out there, including Poetry -- the holy grail of poetry journals, where she published an essay about her grandmother, Ruth Stone. And for being a relative newbie on the scene, Tin House Books and Octopus Books, a dreamy small press joint venture, scooped her right up. And now her first full-length book Someone Else's Wedding Vows is enviably good.
At first glance, her poems are lineated simply -- no grand experiments with form here. What unspools from line to line are thoughts, lovely thoughts that arise out of and are contained in domestic city life, one that occurs within small safe rooms that are not entirely unhappy, but seem to seep up an ever-present grief. In "Elegy" she writes "I take out my collection / of tissue and listen to Judy Garland." If one is getting ready to fall to pieces, it helps to have actions to perform -- objects to look at to remind us that we exist:
...I open the refrigerator
staring at the eggs, each in their Styrofoam socket, each
dumbly assembled head bowed --
when I hold in the fridge light,
the cold driving over my knees,
I think of the funeral.
We are not Transcendentalists anymore; we no longer have a cabin in the woods to contemplate our existence in the world. We have refrigerators; they are the dark wells that our thoughts drop into.
In many ways, Stone shares a kinship with Emily Dickinson; She is fascinated with domestic life, its quietness, and has a sort of "loaded gun" sexuality. Stone can't really compose a confessional poem -- à la Anne Sexton -- because intimacy seems to create discomfort, such as in the poem "Sensitivity to Sound" where a heightened auditory sense resembles mania:
At night I heard the mice screwing in the walls.
Heard them stop, heave into one another, flail back
onto the pink spun insulation
and I heard their terrible dreams begin.
When I shaved my legs it was the sound of dogs barking.
Not the low, consistent bark
but the shrill ones that rise and fall in intensity.
My eyes made the sound of a date being set,
of a photograph being taped to the wall.
Love too is a sort of mania. And the power of this poem is what the speaker chooses to suppress. Sex is both mechanical and miraculous. She writes, "In the rain I heard each drop crossing the immaculate bridge / of your nose. Your penis lifted / like a crane lifting a piano to the top floor."
The ceremony of life is central to Someone Else's Wedding Vows. In the beautiful title poem, a wedding is an occasion for poetry, but it is about as meaningful as reading a greeting card aloud. (Dickinson was relegated to greeting cards.) The poem begins: "The rise of Australopithecus. The weird clouds over Long Island / at the classic wedding. The crowd frightened of what it means / having O'Hara's avocado salad poem read."
If poets are a category of outsiders, the speaker here is doubly so:
I want to embrace whatever is firmer and bigger than myself.
Like the sound of the wind around the tent
or everyone inventing their own colloquial happiness,
acting out, too bored or wired
with rancor to stop eating. And it's true
I spent my whole life in fear of sharing my mind
but with a longing for it to be taken.
The honesty of these lines is something to be admired. Our reactions are never as jubilant as we suspect they should be. Someone close to me has a baby, and part of me shrugs as if to say, "It's just a baby;" and then maybe the baby smiles and I see the baby that I'm supposed to see.
Stone isn't always at the top of her game. There are plenty of instances where I lose sense of her powerful voice. She falls victim to the self-congratulating I-centric poem; the sort of poem that is so locked in the cerebral interior that it refuses to let in any light, such as in the poem "Outpost":
I was going down a river
lulled by the 21st century.
I was staring out of my compound eye
with monochromatic vision.
I was turning into folio.
I was eating. I was ultramarine
with flaming ideas.
I took your picture
without any flash.
Here the anaphora keeps recharging when the battery is just plain dead. The lines are technically good, but the music is missing.
When I saw the cover of Someone Else's Wedding Vows, with Stone's illustration on the cover, for some reason I simply assumed it would include more illustrations inside. She is a talented artist. I would love to have seen her take more of a risk with her first book -- as in do what she did for Anne Carson's Antigonick for herself. There's a risk of course, the warning from the publishing powers that be that this union of poetry and illustrations just isn't done. Books must fit into neat categories in order to be shelved. The danger of including illustrations in a book of poems is that they inform the work too much or not enough.
However, in the history of American poetry the union of poet and artist has always been a constant. E.E. Cummings drew by day and wrote poems by night. The Houghton Library at Harvard apparently has over 10,000 sheets of his drawings. Elisabeth Bishop was a brilliant watercolorist and in 2011-2012 the Tibor de Nagy Galler in New York featured her work, which was later compiled in the gorgeous book Elizabeth Bishop: Objects and Apparitions, a must have for any collector. Sylvia Plath drew illustrations of a Curious French Cat; her daughter, Frieda Hughes, released Sylvia Plath: Drawings in 2013. And Lawrence Ferlinghetti used one of his oil paintings for the cover of A Time of Useful Consciousness.
I'd like to digress for a moment at talk about my generation's dread of something called "selling out." Selling out occurs when you get too popular and hit the mainstream culture in such a way that causes friends, fans, and comrades to sort of hate you. Bands are constantly selling out, moving from a little record label to a big one. But poets, poets don't get much of a chance to sell out because they are lucky if they sell at all. My question is would it be so bad for poets to start to sell out?
Say I walked into a Urban Outfitters to buy a pair of socks with hamburgers on them. Would it be so terrible to see on a display table some poets like Bianca Stone, Tao Lin (he can steal his own book), and Tracy K. Smith next to whomever the next big thing in fiction is? Would it be so terrible if during the holidays when I'm at the very end of my rope, at my sister's house and my nephew is throwing a code orange potty training fit, and my only recourse is to walk a mile to the nearest bookstore, which happens to be a Barnes and Noble that instead of having to choose between a young poet like Rimbaud (who I don't have to remind anyone is dead) and the current over-fifty, white, male poet who pontificates about fly fishing and erectile function I could choose a young poet like Stone, while I smoke a guilty "but-I'm quitting" American Spirit yellow like it's a joint?
Would it be so terrible if young poets released books as often as Joyce Carol Oates and Margaret Atwood publish novels? Stone has what it takes to reach multiple audiences -- poetry snobs like me who have subscriptions to obscure magazines that no one has heard of and readers who typically read Nylon magazine and may not even know what a chapbook is. Stone is good for poetry. She isn't accessible in a way that is overly easy to understand, but she also isn't so out there than no one but a student of the classics can parse her -- she's just the right amount of mystery and relatability; she's one to watch out for.
Someone Else's Wedding Vows by Bianca Stone
Tin House Books