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Femme au Chapeau
Rachel Dacus
David Robert Books
ISBN: 1932339825

Reviewer: Terri Brown-Davidson

Rachel Dacus´s poetry is difficult, but its difficulty is akin to Wallace Stevens´ and therefore delightful. Once we unravel the textured worlds of her sounds and incredibly dense images, a new poetry awaits us, a poetry that is–like Stevens´–constructed of the private symbol and metaphor. Yet, though the terrain of Dacus´s poetry seems initially unknowable, once conquered, this is a realm of dazzling strangeness and beauty. Femme au Chapeau is a book that I´ve lived with, steadily, for weeks, becoming intimate with it during odd, snatched moments while I wait for my daughter at the bus stop, the gorgeously blue-washed Sandia Mountains forming a visual counterpoint to the striking voluptuousness of Dacus´s words, that, this past week, have lifted off the page and wafted as a kind of semi-permanent chant in my consciousness.

In the offbeat and almost surrealistic way Dacus manages to thrill us with her poems, this book, Femme au chapeau, whose title is taken from a portrait that Matisse painted of his wife–a painting that presaged French Fauvism–is really more like a Frida Kahlo painting: gorgeously off-putting in its metaphoric twists, mesmerizingly complex, startling and horrific in its images, and yet so unique that it lives on its own terms after a while and demands that the reader accept them.

In short, this is thrilling, one-of-a-kind poetry.

It´s hard to say which poems in this book I was the most taken with, for Dacus´s subjects are far-ranging, from the metaphoric spins she puts on an art-obsessed father who slides into brutality (one poem, "Ocean House," evokes him–or at least his mouth–as the ocean itself) to singing in the Pandaleschwar Caves to a simply rendered yet no less complex poem on the narrator´s mother making apple pie. I found no weak poems in the book, no poems which had been rendered without a precise and usually brilliant attention to craft, and this deep and abiding love for technique was partly what entranced me. The intricacy of Dacus´s poems is astonishing, the rich layerings of sonicism that she shines to a fantastic polish until the reader is tempted to physically chant the poems out loud as she moves about her daily routine. This is poetry that stays with us, poetry which is high art.

The most compelling poems for me were the fantastically imagined poems about art and the presence of a sinister but aesthetically minded father in section one ("Portrait of Lady with Red Flowers") and a cluster of poems about miscarriage and infertility in section two ("Femme au chapeau"). The former poems examine, in almost excruciatingly minute detail, the tormented relationship between a father and daughter, and limns their growing emotional distance in sonically delectable but psychologically disturbing lines.

In "Horse on the Lawn," arguably one of the least densely textured poems in the book, but terrific nonetheless, a perpetual "watching" in a family defies emotional boundaries and eventually becomes defined as a "not-seeing," no member of a family seeing/understanding any other member, until the claustrophobia grows intense and yet delicious, too: the reader longs to keep inhabiting the poem and yet to escape it:

On the lawn a hobby horse
rocks on a metal spring,
wind-galloping. His painted
eyes cannot see the girl
who skulks among trees,
waiting to loft on his leap.
She cannot see her mother
in spider-light brooding
over ironing, pulling sheets
between the mangle´s plates
while stories above, the father
measures the ocean with a flat stick.
He cannot see the linen weep
between hot rollers, fall
in folds, smiling days
piled white to the sky.
He prisms the house,
planes its corners, smudges
his gray matters on walls,
sanding corners so no one
Can see around them
to the horse´s stare
and the child who breaks
into a gallop, hooves billowing.

Also delicious and exciting is the aforementioned poem, "Ocean House," which possesses that same strange quality of metaphoric twisting with which Dacus loves to infuse her work, a majestic complexity. The sounds and images of this poem, as with her other more compressed pieces, tempt us into the text first, and we work on the poetic content, typically, later. But what a soul-enriching task it is! The difficulty only seduces us and places Dacus in a category in which few contemporary poets belong, among them, perhaps, Alice Fulton and Heather McHugh: the "poet´s poet." What´s so wonderful about Dacus´s formalism in particular, her sonnets, pantoums, ghazals, and terzanelles, is that she embraces difficulty rather than shuns it. Her glittering poetic surface stuns us into sentience in line after line, and makes us, as readers, chase her vision as avidly as she does.

The ocean invaded our house
when I was eight. A sudden boom
and lash, the spittle at the corner
of my father´s mouth. His rogue voice
tumbled and unshelled us, scuttled
children to barnacle corners,
tossed a wife in gritty froth.

A man whose mouth becomes ocean
turns his family into rocks with eyes,
bottom feeders who flicker and feint,
a prancing tuna chorus line
as painted on Chicken-of-the-Sea cannery:
happy fish high-kicking
down the hatch.

I saw disguise as a trap
and grew a barbed spine and neon
scales that blazed: Swallow me
and I´ll gnaw you from inside.

The wily ocean pulled back,
veiled its tooth, bowed its shore.
I grappled up and gulped the dryness.
Suspended in a blazing new ocean,
I see so far that fins can fly.

Yet, as much as I loved Dacus´s poems linking art and paternity, the dark poems in section two were the most beautiful and terrifying. Poems such as "Blood-Cycle Brooding," "Letter to a Birth Mother," and "Lady of Last Chances" evoke the poignancy of the longing to have a child–and the inability to give birth to one–with a strange, almost mythological beauty. The sheer sonicism of "Blood-Cycle Brooding" makes this poem about menstruation transformative in the same way Alice Fulton´s poems are. Here, Dacus scans the shadows of female biological life and ends up with the tranformative power, not of birth, but of poetry itself, a poetry that emerges as vocation, even salvation:

One more unpeeling of the walls,
close enough to the final time
that I can relish the tiny tearings,
the way muscles unclasp
from what might have been–
Once more, the shredding of a bed
that waited fruitless five times seven
years for an egg and dart
to decorate its aching lap.

Once more a blood-gravity pulls
me into a planet´s centripetal spin,
the dropping-down cramp
mimicking birth-pang,
open mouth delivering
a new poem, breath
heaving and rasping.
And what do I have left
from all those empty moon-circles?

Scraped squeaky clean, the blood-room
has birthed generative words.
They sleep twitching in their cradles
or sun themselves on public rocks.
Tribe after diatribe of oaths and chants
spilled from lips too like another portal.
Yes, in this blood-tide of verbs
I brought myself forth
through a mirror, witched awake
out of the pounding dark.

Yet, much as she loves to cast her lines into the deepest shadow-realms imaginable, Dacus is not without a sense of humor; several poems in Femme au chapeau lead us to fall in love with Dacus´s wit and verbal daring, as in this poem, "A Road Scholar":

Mysterious symbols have appeared. Three signs
on Averill Avenue: P-E-D-X-I-N-G.
But Mother says a word cannot begin with X.
As we ride home, I ponder why our signs
belong to the Chinese. How do you say X
to start? Pot lids rubbed together, KSING or ZING?
When asked, my mother snaps, How can I drive
if you pepper me with questions?
Ask one more thing and I´ll lose my mind.

Squirming on the hot car seat.
We pass the row of pepper trees and I wonder,
does a lost mind flutter in the gutter?
Does a ped xing wear a pointed black hat
and willowy trees shed powder
that makes you sneeze: KSING!
So many mysteries, but No More Questions.
I grip the back of her seat and chew
conundrums, scraps of enigma
flying through heated air.

Dacus is a poet to watch. She´s published one previous book, Earth Lessons (Bellowing Ark Press), which I plan to investigate. But Dacus is a poet who renders such poetic beauty and wields such virtuosic feats that it´s her future I´m most interested in, her inevitable poetic growth.

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