Singing Back to the Sirens
Ultimately DeRitter puts desire down in a resolutely unflashy idiom. Her poems dispel dreams; they don’t induce them.
REVIEWED BY EZRA FELDMAN
Ezra is the author Habitat of Stones, which won the Patricia Bibby First Book Award. He has been published in RHINO, Crazyhorse, Lambda Literary, DIAGRAM, and other venues. He teaches American Literature and Science and Technology Studies at Williams College.
Margaret DeRitter’s Singing Back to the Sirens positions its reader clearly, concretely in the seascape of the poet’s desires. The book’s first half is mostly about desires thwarted (“but, oh yeah, you like boys”), and its second half is mostly about desires whose objects are already lost (“I stopped weeding the garden after you left”). The best poems, though, let the poet’s desires transmute both scene and object so that they become more dreamlike and echo more fully with the logic of sound, the promised siren song.
Of course, it’s hard not to be attracted by the candor of lines like these from “First Girlfriend: Valentine’s Day, 1981.” “Can’t you feel the sex appeal?” the poet writes with cool distance from the “matching wigs, reverse outfits” of Raggedy Ann and Andy, donned for a visit to the local gay bar. “And yet I met my first girlfriend that night— / after I lost the wig.” I root for this speaker who finishes the poem “vibrating with all I couldn’t say” but has already offered a litany of her first girlfriend’s attractions: “she was wiry, muscled, / tan, loved to play tennis and sunbathe naked / in the dunes. And the teacher thing, oh yeah.”
Yet the joys of “Floating Through Hades on a Pin Cushion” are more satisfying, because each of its couplets rings. First a “cottage” turns and doubles on its soft g until it becomes “gingerbread.” Soon “The woman I loved is laughing / in the windows of every party I walk past,” and the multiplication of images—the inaccessible loved one appearing in window after window—works all the better for the multiplication of w sounds in the second line. “A slug falls from my nightgown, / a silvery line runs down my thigh,” and the hard g’s disappearance from one line to the next marks the drama of the dreamlike (or nightmarish) scene. Similarly, when the poem’s final image transmogrifies the speaker’s body, the swapped sounds of “chest” and “switch”—the s moving from tail to head; the ch from head to tail—underscore the mixed-up body plan and its extra arm that “flops like a fish.”
DeRitter can play as much in the middles of words as at their ends. “Was it your freckled skin that did me in / or the smell of cloves upon your neck?” she asks in “The Alchemists Had Nothing on You.” This poem’s final line, however, replaces the seduction of the reader by repeated sound (“skin” and “in”; “freckle,” “smell,” and “neck”) with the seduction of the speaker by body and movement (“I would have followed your ass anywhere”) and the substitution forced me to consider what Singing Back to the Sirens is really up to. As much as I wish DeRitter had built rich patterns of sound and rhythm into more of the poems, I’m not sure the poet could have done so without diminishing the collection’s commitment to forthright desire. Making gold from base metals is the alchemist’s objective, so if “the alchemists had nothing on you,” it seems just possible that the poem’s implicit punchline is a golden ass, a concealed image of cleverness backfiring, as it does on Apuleius’s hero. Here and elsewhere I suspect that DeRitter’s most important question is precisely whether the intricately enticing songs of sirens can properly coexist with tangible pleasures.
Ultimately DeRitter puts desire down in a resolutely unflashy idiom. Her poems dispel dreams; they don’t induce them even in “Remnants of a Dream Overtake the Day,” which twins the absolute reality of an ex-lover’s presence (“there you are—as real / as Paris or Jersey traffic or the cabin at Ford Lake”) with the irreality of the ex’s acceptance (“when I reached for your hand, you let me”). The powers of desire and loss belong to plain speech, DeRitter argues. After a while grief becomes “the buzz of a fluorescent bulb— / once you notice, it won’t let go.”