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Review: Chapbooks– Beautifully Whole & Badass

Years ago, in a bar, talking about poetry, a friend of mine said, “Poetry. What do you do with that? I guess you could always write chapbooks.” Things have changed since then, and chapbooks (usually fewer than 30 pages of poetry) are not just plentiful, but proliferating. See chapbooks from Tupelo Press, Sarabande (authors Louise Glück and James Tate) or presses with a more edgy or DIY aesthetic such as Rattle, Sundress Publications, or Bloof Books, to name just a few. I’ll be looking at two intriguing and very different examples from a recent wealth of poetry chapbooks currently in circulation.

Beautifully Whole
Julie Brooks Barbour
Hermeneutic Chaos Press

Our first chapbook is a simple hand-sewn volume with a printed pen and ink cover that appears delicately hand-lettered, curvilinear goldfish and orange scales feathering outward. This twelve poem chapbook begins with “Girl Imagines Her Disappearance” and ends with “The Babies.” So it’s obvious we will be examining identity and desire, and after the first poem, it is clear this exploration will be mythical—a fable of an ordinary girl. Yes, there is a stepmother, and fires, and an invalid father. There is lace, desire, an omen, teeth, and an entire world of expectations and limits, and the language and details revel in this mythic world, like in these couplets, from “Stone”:

She is a vehicle for desire, a stone figure dropped
in the ocean. Curved and white, her roughness

modified by the movement of water. No hair appears
on her legs or above her lip. No lumps on or under

her skin. No wrinkles at the edges of her eyes,
in laugh lines, or on her neck. Her skin is pulled taut.

Our notion of femininity and expectations, of what a life looks like for a girl whose poetic sequence ends with a roomful of babies not her own, is tested through our knowledge of how fairy tales work and what a woman is worth. Barbour’s chapbook of haunting parables is intimate and chilling.

Les Kay
Lucky Bastard Press

This chapbook is long, a forty-nine page long poem, which reads as an incantation of atonement for a night of adolescent, masculine adventure. The poem’s form seems to borrow from such poets as Basho and Dickinson and Williams, among others—veering from fragments to traditional narrative construction. This seems apt as the story follows the actions of a group of underage boys on an Independence Day journey-gone-wrong. Kay also borrows from the Gospels (he makes good use of the Southern Biblical grounding of a yearning, adolescent nihilism) to good structural and metaphoric effect.

Both beautiful and painful, we get to investigate with the author how things we thought were terrible, don’t look so bad now—and the author navigates that sometimes painful territory with honor and tenderness, bringing me as a reader into the text, allowing me to enter a shared examination of our pasts. Kay reels me in to care for the naïve fools we all were in our youths, to the adults we are now, and to recognize how clear the paths from teenage punk to futures that include drugs, the military, university, and prison.

So what is the use the reconsidering the past? Kay grapples with that, as well:

I don’t want to say this,
tell the truth, caution youth,
slather patchwork veneers                        over half-lived lives
I don’t want to tell a fucking story           it’s not a fucking story.

Badass is not only the story of lives lost—to fable, to culture and expectations, to the losses of our better judgment, but through examination, becomes a story about the messy, reckless beauty of love, friendship, and youth.