Curious Curios

The poems in Rebecca Morgan Frank’s debut collection Little Murders Everywhere bring to mind the former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky’s assertion that all poetry is meant to be read out loud, to be savored on the tongue. The words spill forth in a tumble of image, idea and sound, offering multi-layered pleasures. Even as we recoil from the gruesome reality of animal dissection or the grotesque self-mutilation in a carnival act, we cannot help but delight in the irregular music of layered sound. And if we are honest with ourselves, we cannot help but press our noses close to the glass of the spectacles depicted in clear-eyed terms.

Frank’s poems are littered with rhyme and slant-rhyme, assonance and alliteration. We come to expect them in short order as the opening poem “Song of the Rattling Pipes” mimics the song of a house’s plumbing:

                           …words drumming
their way into the plumbing
of her body, her veins a vessel for song,
blood-coursed vowels, consonance

Not only is the house a vessel for song, but so is the body of the inhabitant, and so is the reader who ingests these words and works them through the windpipe. In “For the Sin of Bossiness,” Frank uses repetitive sounds to amplify the metaphor of a presumptuous queen bee whirring through the poem:

Queen of the Bees, your hum builds hives,
bores a buzz in the hearts of drones.
Your stinger stuns your last week’s rival
and sends her spiraling to the hay.

The heavy breathing of each “h” coupled with the lightly aspirated “b” and of course the schwa and the short “u” sound pile up to send the reader on a roller coaster of English phonemes. These poems would be the perfect fit for a primer on English pronunciation—post them online with a series of play arrows and ESL learners would have a rich, naturalistic method of mastering American English.

The poems also satisfy the desire for formal elements in poetry that surged at the end of the last century. A series of unrhymed sonnets titled “For the Sin of…” punctuate the collection. This conceit focuses on not only the sin—gossip, bossiness, two-timing, lying, foolishness, passiveness, forgetting—but the punishment of the sin. The queen bee above does not suffer a mysterious collapse of her hive as is happening in nature, but rather, she is put in her place by the poet:

The horses swat their tails, swipe as flies flit by.
They don’t even hear your bee-speak.

In “For the Sin of Lying,” an array of tiny paper cranes people the poem, “a pair of wings for every lie.” The cranes hover and swarm, ready for revenge, yet,

               no footprints will be left
by the executioner’s smooth shoe.
Nameless as he wrings the little folded necks.

The inanimate cranes are both torturer and tortured, the lies are obliterated by the executioner, victims of a massacre. The formal constraint of these loose sonnets increases the tension of the central idea of each poem.

In addition to the sonnets, the poems come in all manner of stanza length, alternating between couplets, tercets and quatrains, focusing the reader’s attention on the units of meaning contained in each stanza. In the poem “Gemini,” the opening couplet creates a tableau that hangs, suspended, over the rest of the poem:

They were held under water for three days, breathless
beneath the current, and when they rose, skin white, petal-bare

Of course the enjambment of the second line pulls the reader along to the next stanza, but the image developed in this stanza is like a little cameo, followed by a fully realized poem. Stanza variation not only creates interesting units of meaning, but visual and aural interest. Many poems employ tercets with terraced lines such as “Cityscape”:

This is the bruise of the city,

the mark across our faces

when we rise from tunnels

gasping in the next opening of doors,

only to find another sealed gate

and another and another,

circling around the narrow

streets that once

knew ground.

These lines draw the eye down and out, make the reader travel through space and meaning. We circle the streets along with the speaker and feel the momentum of the poem through the indented lines. In addition, while there is not a set meter in the poem, in these two stanzas, we start with the longest line, and drop a half-beat with each subsequent line. The rhythmic and visual variations create movement under the central idea of the poem, delivered in the final line, that “the civilized world” is nothing but bricks drained of blood and mice scuttling underground, all the folly of man built upon landfill.

“Cityscape” is an example of Frank’s tendency to employ a turn at the end of a poem. She paints a dreary picture of development and its impact on city dwellers. The final line is a surprise in part because on the face it reads like irony, but also because it is an expression of the sum of the equation of urban growth. In “How to Skin a Swan,” Frank methodically relays the strangely fascinating process of flaying a swan. After dashing the received illusion of whiteness associated with swans and holding up the muddied feathers and ebony quills for the reader to see, after draining the heart and slicing the throat and breast of the beast, Frank reveals her true purpose:

                          When you see beauty,
you must want to remove it.

This turn ensnares the reader with the use of the second person, and the use of the ambiguous “must.” We do not know whether we are compelled or commanded to denude beauty, but we know we are complicit in the act.

The question of “little murders,” of course, is the title of the collection, and its central concern. A scientist probes an animal brain in “Repertoire,” the husk flies are coated in toxic powder in “Notes to the Scientist,” and a local artist curates the dead in “From the Curious Cabinets of Rosamond Purcell.” The poet and the characters who inhabit these poems examine the dead with curiosity, a curiosity perhaps ennobled by science or art. These deaths are given meaning and dressed in beautiful language as poet, reader, speaker and subjects all collude in the murder, or at the very least the gawking. The title poem raises the stakes, as the speaker slaughters a number of small animals in an effort to nourish an injured hawk. The final lines of the poem are unflinching in their assessment of the human relationship to the animal world:

Dark-blood bodies, casualties I didn’t mourn.

I loved only her, her snapping severed wing,
that vicious grip, her equivalent of a fist.

And what could she think of me?
I was the dark room, the leather glove, the rope.

As Linda Gregerson notes in the cover blurb, the final line offers an ars poetica. Throughout the book, Frank is taming and displaying the wild animal of life, aware of the artifice, always in command.

In Little Murders Everywhere, Frank is not reinventing contemporary poetry or adding new tools to the toolbox. It is simply that she is wielding the age-old tools expertly, delivering delicate yet sturdy handiwork.

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2 comments

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