How To Approach the Mysterious
Reviewer: Sarah Louise Green
Reviews Editor: Meg Hurtado
Location: Mrs. Dalloway’s 2904 College Ave., Berkeley, CA
Curator: Mary Fox
Mrs Dalloway’s Contact Person: Mary Fox
Parking/Transportation: Unless you have the strange & good fortune of finding a spot on College, your best bet is to turn left on Russell and left again into the small lot that the bookstore shares with some of the neighboring restaurants and shops.
The Run of Things: Come early to browse. The bookstore has a carefully curated poetry selection as well as robust offerings of biography, gardening, and other sorts of books. The crowd trickles in, but there will likely be no seats left as the reading begins.
Is There a Blog? Yes. You can find the schedule of readings and other events on their website.
Upcoming Poetry Readings: Sandy Tseng and Allison Benis-White read July 22 at 7:30 p.m.
Excerpts from each of the readers will be featured within this review.
A few weeks ago, I attended a poetry reading by two of Wave Books’ authors, Dorothea Lasky and Joe Wenderoth. The reading was scheduled in the early evening, so I expected a smaller-than-usual crowd, but Mrs. Dalloway’s was packed from wall to wall. Perhaps the room was full of poetry lovers in whose lives “commute” has no place, or maybe it was the lure of complimentary wine; in any case, the audience was treated to an intense and sometimes even prickly reading.
Dorothea—who we’ll now refer to as Dottie because it’s too winsome of a nickname to go unused—read first. With only a few words of introduction, she began reading out of her new book of poems, Black Life. She started with the frank and undramatic poem, “Mike, I had an affair”, which did a good job of orienting the listeners to her no-nonsense confessions of loneliness and complicated human relationships. But what really struck me about the poems was the admission of sentiment, nostalgia, and even a version of hope or devotion to some distant spirit or benevolent god. Dottie didn’t look up much, or comment much about the poems, but sent them over our heads with a level and confident voice well-suited to her even, unpunctuated lines:
It is a black life, but I don’t want to die
I don’t want to die, I don’t ever want to die
Goddamn you, don’t you shoot me in my sleep
Let me rot on this earth forever
Like a carrot I will be everything God can’t see
Oh what do I mean
God can see everything
This excerpted passage from “Tornado” is especially haunting because Dottie read it without desperation, without the sort of emotional crescendo that one might expect from such lines.
And that’s one thing this reading revealed to me—my expectations for how contemporary poetry “appropriately” manages emotions and the things that most deeply unnerve us. I spent at least the first few poems waiting for the poems to turn some tricks in the face of the chaotic world, but they refused. They didn’t even wink. Rather they venerated classic images of innocence—babies, birds—as well as archetypal images of spirituality—the Sun, fire. Together this created a feeling true to the title of her first collection: awe. The kind of awe that’s awful and sort of unbearable in large amounts, but so compelling because its objects are earnestly considered.
And Dottie acknowledges her speaker’s distance from the awfully mysterious: “You are born and it is to a black life / Full of abuse and strange things / Monsters come up to you as soon as you enter”. Yet despite the world’s absurdities, despite our scary selves, love persists throughout the poems: “Dorothea, the bird might say to you, I love you anyway”. I mentally buck when the word “love” surfaces in relation to these complicated and often unforgiving poems, but Dorothea’s earnest reading left me no option but to accept that the poems might really mean it and mean well. She didn’t drop in a popular culture reference for the audience to smile knowlingly at. And she didn’t satirize public figures or brandish empty ironies. Though they are carefully made, I would hesitate to call these poems clever (in the sense of slyness) because they were given to the audience without comment, without anecdote, exactly as they are. And so Dottie did nothing except what she needed to: give us these poems as gifts, as an instance of connection, or possibly love, within the poetry community.
Joe was a wonderful complement to Dottie. He also took the stage unassumingly and began to read from his latest book of poems, No Real Light. Whereas Dottie’s speaking voice was light and airy Joe’s poems seem to come out of a deep place, still shrugging off gravel and grit. Part of why I experienced the poems this way likely has to do with his frequent use of elemental or earthly objects in his poems. A good example is the poem he opened with, “The Weight of What is Thrown”:
Smooth stones have always appealed to me.
River stones, I guess they’re called,
though the best ones come from ocean shoreline
where cliffs are crumbling and tides are rising
and perfecting what they have broken.
In Maine, for instance,
there are beaches of big smooth stones—
the stones are piled deep
like those plastic balls in a kids’ carnival attraction.
Joe’s storytelling side was evident from his casual manner in the poems to the way in which he unfolded narrative details, which suggested a deep familiarity with a readerly mind. His writing exudes clarity, concision, and pith; his delivery, which was measured and approachable, gave the audience opportunity to enjoy his sentences, turning over their ideas and feeling for their familiar objects. Here, everything is recognizable; things are taken for how they appear. That is not to say they’re taken for granted. In fact, there was a sort of understated awe in Joe’s poems, too—love for a thing, not for its use or its meaning, but “that it is at all.”
After a handful of other poems from the book, gravitas was set aside. Joe considerately and sincerely checked the audience for young members; a mom browsing books on the far end of the store said it was okay for him to read whatever it was he was going to read next—her child wasn’t paying any attention. So he read “Semiotics…”, a poem which, at once, could be considered outlandish and incisive. The poem, which features Jesus (with a “filthy cunt”, mind you) initiating an orgy with his disciples, was the product of Joe trying to write “the most offensive thing [he] could conceive of.” Naturally, the audience was abuzz with snickers and a few members shook their heads, but everyone was electric with attentiveness.
Besides the fact that Joe is a talented reader, using each transition to its maximum effect, the poem was engaging because, laughs and offense aside, it is the product of thoughtfulness and an engagement with (and possibly rejection of) societal convention. Joe followed up with an essay he wrote about irreverence for American Poet (which, ironically, censored the essay from publication). The main tenet of the essay is that any conventional “irreverence” implies a reverence for the self’s separation from the Other’s profound power. The example Joe provided was watching a scene of pornography wherein a woman is triply penetrated (as he pointed out, much like Christ on the Cross) and realizing that, though “offensive”, he had reverence for this woman’s other-ness. How far she was from him inspired a sort of base awe. This realization is what, in part, compelled him to try and replicate this “reverence” by taking the sacred (the figure of Christ) and desecrating it (by way of the homoerotic orgy).
As anyone can imagine, this sparked a fiery Q & A. Even in Berkeley, Christ with a cunt is a little outrageous. Joe addressed the question as best as he could, but seemed disinterested in justifying his choices in terms of taking on the project itself. He told me afterwards that reading that poem is “like a bomb,” and you’re never sure where or when it’s going to go off or how people will flare up. Since he had read the essay explaining his thought process in relation to the piece, some of the angry inquiries seemed beside the point. But it was great fun! I don’t remember the last time a poetry reading made me so edgy, so unnerved, and so ready to break up a fight if need be. Eventually, the questions calmed down, people had their wine and their books signed, and everything was back to normal in the poetry world. But not before both Dottie and Wenderoth, through their poems and their various attitudes, took us closer to the mysterious, the unknowable knot that darkly burns at the edge of our imagination and which can only be approached with proper absurdity and all sincerity.