By Lea Graham
No Tell Books, 2011
Reviewed by Lina ramona Vitkauskas
Book Review Editor’s Note: This month Lina Ramona Vikauskas reviews a book with an intriguing title which employs an equally intriguing conceit of writing about “crushes” on things and people, with all that word implies.
At some point in their lives, girls inevitably develop a “crush” on someone, and it often starts on the playground. It begins, perhaps, with a boy’s shove, followed by a punch, scratch, kick, or incessant poke. It is then confirmed by “taunts” or “songs” publicized by fellow girl schoolmates—perhaps skipped to in-time while jumping rope. Most everyone can recall the rhyme, “Mary and Joey sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G. . .”
It is in the spirit of these taunts or songs—the often humiliating, embarrassing, or overwhelmingly liberating feelings that they conjure—and the inexorable link between songs and poems that Lea Graham craftily explores the “crush” in her new book, Hough & Helix & Where & Here & You, You, You (No Tell Books, 2011).
The link between poems and songs may be obvious, but as a translator of Chilean poetry, Graham brings her deeper understanding of their connection in this tradition to her book. Graham is also author of the chapbook Calendar Girls (above/ground Press, 2006) which directly deals with the idea of place informing the musicality of language, and this bolsters the geographically attuned voice throughout Hough & Helix.
Each of Graham’s poems is titled a “crush,” and each “crush” concentrates upon myriad objects of affection including people, works of art, shocking events, abstract concepts, perceptions of a particular person, and playfully, concepts of a crush. What the poet does within each crush is reveal—through wistfully stunning verse—the connection between “crush feelings” and song.
The childhood ritual of chanting songs about a crush becomes the adult practice of dedicating songs to a crush, and when we play the “special” song, it is way for the longing, infatuated “crusher” to capture the essence of the “crushee”—the object of their love/desire. A song conveniently and immediately allows the “crusher” to relive all of the feelings the “crushee” inspires. Yet, this custom is a solitary action which the “crushee” rarely, if ever, witnesses. And Graham effectively exemplifies this ache in her poems. Consider “Crush #421”:
A message appeared in my inbox: armpit & luminescent
& hoary. That was all it took. I woke greening like Stanley Park.
Words kept coming: pudenda, tuber, torus, cavetto…
…Then oh god & desperately
& make a clean breast of, wilting righteous, sprawling before me.
I slouched in internet cafes talking to rain, my inbox empty.
Here the reader gets the hard-hitting message: a crush is unrequited, unreciprocated. It can be uplifting and devastating—in this order and back again. And it eventually fades. In other words, the song ends. This idea is reinforced in “Crush #421”:
Even the song drained, the chant emptied.
Throughout her collection, Graham shows us that “song sings its own answer” (“Palinode”). She inserts Elvis lyrics, dedicates a poem to Stevie Wonder, uses subtle repetition and soft assonance, and invokes childhood camp songs such as “Jimmy Crack Corn” and “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” (“Crush on a Road Trip”). Graham even employs lyrical language in her title—reminding the reader of catchy childhood taunts and chants such as “nanny nanny boo boo” or “ha-ha ha-ha ha-haaa” or “shimmy shimmy coco bop” (which she uses to end the poem “Palinode”)—making every word-inch of Hough & Helix, et. al. meaningful and reminiscent.
Graham also skillfully juxtaposes innocent lyrics with adult reality—and without obvious language or sentimentality. She offers the reader glimpses into early childhood crushes “Crush Lesson,” and “A Crush for All of Us Back Then,” and then pulls back to reveal mature observations, perhaps imitating the experience adults face reminiscing about a crush—it seems innocent and new, but we know it is temporary. We know this yearning feeling and empathize—we too experience her crushes and are crushed with her.
The poet cleverly maps—again using geography to inform her poems as in her previous book—the evolution of a crush from cover to cover of this collection. It is similar to a song’s structure—intro/hook, chorus, bridge, chorus, fade. She begins with a skillfully arranged poem that attempts to define all nuances and feelings surrounding the word “crush” (perhaps to mimic the experience of the first pangs of a crush (unfocused emoting, denying, trying to define, etc.):
Crushed by smack or cosh, by rubbernecking
up against flapping, the brilliance of chickens
“to alter” …
… the postman rings twice
around neon …
… once in a payphone, once in rain …
... crushed when there’s nothing else to say …
and ends with a finite group of poems that reveal another overarching aspect of the collection: the idea that a crush is merely a fantasy. The “song” of this entire book hits a smoldering crescendo and then goes numb, most prominently evidenced by “Crush #19,” where the poet invokes the intentionally exaggerated, seductive images of the film The Postman Always Rings Twice and then images of a woman grappling with lost youth from the film The Graduate in “Crush #40”:
Her smirk & catch poised before a cigarette,
his con’s eye & lips working toothpick,
the locked door, the absent husband,
loaves and dough still perfect or rising,
his face implied in her thigh’s diamond,
palms thrust, knife flung. C’mon— …
… kneading breasts, the garter
her stockings, his grip …
… a tight shot the camera won’t release … (“Crush #19”)
Someday we will become Mrs. Robinson.
We will slip a clip-on off an earlobe to take a call.
Our penciled eyebrows will insist it is 1967.
This is the year of our births which we carefully
fail to mention across the bar from him or her,
scruffy & smooth, young like we remember
believing we would always be. (“Crush #40”)
Additional poems at the end of this collection grow solemn and resigned, reinforcing the fact that a crush is inevitably impermanent. In “Palinode” (which draws out aspects/details from all the crushes and refutes them line by line):
There’s no place where the dancing’s free. No kissing against chicken cages.
No bloody palms & waffles. Nor the stain of a rubber dress. …
… That poem never got written. …
and in “Crush Starting with a Line by Jack Gilbert”:
Desire perishes because it tries to be love
& so, I think, why search or seek it?
Whether it is the organic, beautiful-strange harmonic sounds Graham offers us (“Crush #421”):
… germinated, coalesced—what grows shared—bromeliads, bougainvillea
bleeding hearts: bract & spine, caudex & corolla, stamen,
calyx, carpel. Sitting at a bar next to a man with hair
the color of speech & honey & semen, …
or the stark-then-sensual images she offers us (perhaps imitating the pull-and-push nature of a crush) – (“Crush #49):
about your knees he whispered
above the hough, above the tongue…
…against oil derricks,…
…hair toss & fuck all…
…glittering with joy
at the table: you’re beautiful you’re beautiful pass me the pepper
Graham delivers a collection that is a lovely, self-contained song in and of itself. A song that touches upon the enigmatic in subtle, canto form. The reader may at first be skeptical about the subject matter (love/crushes), but like a new crush, the idiosyncrasies of this book begin to mesmerize and hook, offering us an opportunity to look at the crush in a endearingly quirky new way.
Lina ramona Vitkauskas (Lithuanian-American-Canadian) has lived in Chicago for most of her life and is fascinated by films, astronomy, retinas (after nearly going blind), comedy, Surrealism and dreams, and genealogy. In 2009, Brenda Hillman selected her for The Poetry Center of Chicago’s Juried Reading Award. She is the author of A Neon Tryst (Shearsman Books, 2013); HONEY IS A SHE (Plastique Press, April 2012); THE RANGE OF YOUR AMAZING NOTHING (Ravenna Press, 2010); and Failed Star Spawns Planet/Star (dancing girl press, 2006). She is co-editor of the long-running online literary magazine, milk magazine, and has been featured in Ugly Duckling Presse’s Emergency Index, the anthology The City Visible: Chicago Poetry for the New Century (Cracked Slab Books), and has published/will be published in DIAGRAM, The Prague Literary Review, TriQuarterly, The Toronto Quarterly, Van Gogh’s Ear (Paris), White Fungus (New Zealand/Taiwan; currently on display at MoMA), and many others. She is a faculty member at the new Chicago School of Poetics.