Cambridge Book Review

[Issue #7, Spring & Summer 2002]


Luna de Miel
By Laurie MacDiarmid
Cassandra Press, 2001

Loose Change
By Louis McKee
Marsh River Press, 2001

Reviewed by Karla Huston

 
Filled to throbbing with yearning, Laurie MacDiarmid's Luna de Miel is packed with passionate poems, full of unpredictable, dreamlike images of love and desire, sin and repentance. MacDiarmid takes the reader along on a wild ride, on a honeymoon (luna de miel), from when the narrator discovers desire sitting next to her in the first poem, to her final outing in the last when she reconsiders her daughter and what the child might not understand of her mother's passion.

The first poem "True Love" finds the narrator awakened by longing, while "cruising/ flat-foot over the dead and/ cackles" of her ordinary life. The reader meets Armand, the lover, purveyor of sin, when he takes the narrator to a wedding in "Late Afternoon," the wedding flowers not the only thing deflowered finally as she refuses to become like:
Aunt Bella, "forty-eight and unfucked,"
ribboned rice bag twisted in her bloated grip,
wheezed down the church steps after us,
lips pulled apart between creamy cheeks.

 
From "Resurrection" through "Tucson Aphrodite" and "Down Alvernon," the narrator gains some sort of redemption as she awakens from her journey only to discover her daughter once again. The discovery grounds her, and the reader is somehow redeemed as well.
 
MacDiarmid's poems are filled with wonderfully crafted images. She makes the reader spin and shiver with the uncertain pleasure of lust and sin. Images, "skimming past flowered crosses/ gravestones yellow as teeth" to "Water spoils at the curbs and oily cobblestones,/ slick as otters' backs " and "a delicate honeymoon circle/ that'll nestle, cool and small/ as nibbled kisses/ against my white wrist ...," delight the reader with their freshness. MacDiarmid's poems echo with assonance. The poem "True Love" smacks with short "a" sounds in words like cackle, flat, traffic, black, glad, and dappled. 

In the poem "Late Afternoon," MacDiarmid opens with words that rely on long "o-s" (coast, Taxco, over, spoils, oily, stones, open, doorways) perhaps to reflect the narrator's surprise or maybe shock at being taken on this dreamlike journey. 
The metal creaks and groans as the stones
roll away on either side,
into open mouths and black eyes,
dark doorways to muddy houses.

 
Sound and image combine to create the overriding theme of this small book: desire. Desire promises that it can take you by surprise, take you while doing the most ordinary things, take you nearly anywhere if you trust it. And then desire takes you back, maybe sweating and choking, but certainly returned and forever changed. Desire is so pervasive that in the poem "Pretty Soon":
 
It sparked behind their shut lids,
leaked from his fingers into her tangled hair,
skittered out into the ivy,
where sleepy wasps hustled bush to bush,

so that it sketched in the peeling eaves,
threw the palo verde into purple,

and painted the fat chickens white.
Even the morning glories turned their

tactless faces up, stupid with bliss,
expecting to be filled.


MacDiarmid, winner of the John Gilgun award for poetry in 2001 (The Mochila Review, Missouri Western State College), is a writer of skill, humor and passion. These poems take delight in the marriage of language and image, sin and redemption.

* * *

Philadelphian Louis McKee's poems slip into your ear so easily, so quietly that you don't realize their full impact until you're finished and left shivering with a sense of loss, wondering what happened. Many of them deal with failed love, doomed love, the narrator a man who -- like you -- has been left to wonder what has happened. Yet in these poems, there is always hope that the next "Plane to La Paz" will bring fulfillment of many wishes, carry the narrator -- and reader -- off to new dreams, balance you both somehow in fresh expectation.

McKee's language is simple; his word choice is careful, but never cautious. He is a man in love with language, a man whose poems love many women, sometimes just because they are women. He begins with "Ancient History," a poem about the beginning of language and sexual discovery. He ends with "Lake Effect," in which the narrator finds that what he needs is behind him, another loss of sorts but a homecoming as well. What unravels between are twenty-one poems, stunning in their imagery, their clarity.

Some poems exult in love and lust, both gratifying and unexpected. In one the poet imagines a woman walking bare-assed across a Jersey beach, he too stupefied by the sight or her to even write haiku. In another the poet falls in love with a woman for her politics, the pronunciation of her hard "g-s". In a third, the poet hopes that the husband of the object of his desire takes care: "S let him tend, then, to his tasks/ for both, for all our sakes."

Some poems shudder with loneliness and loss. In the title poem, "Loose Change," the narrator pays fifty cents for poems written by other poets -- a way to buy time before he has to go back to his troubles. What he gets, he fingers like coins in his pocket, something to carry him away, act as a talisman against pain. Many of these poems start in simple images, but loss fills them, a kind of wistful regret, maybe. Still they often end well, the possibility of the unexpected trembling, like a kiss that still burns in the morning. In the poem "Revision," the only thing that matters anymore is the memory:

The moon will tell you that it is a short story
words were said that couldn't be taken
back, couldn't be changed. The differences
between what two people thought
and what was said is a wildfire; you can see it
burning like moonlight on a peaceful river,
the white moon given to easy shadows.

The sexual nature of these poems is neither shy nor self-conscious. In "The Nurturing" the poet shows how he -- with the blessings of his best friend -- samples the breast milk of his friend's wife. This simple act creates a rebirth for the narrator. "So it was mindless really, when/ I pulled away, a different man now,/ coming through a different childhood." In the poem "The Flower Show," the poet teases the reader with sweet flower images juxtaposed against the undressing his lady for love-making -- those "shy petals, shy nipples, soft hearts." All it takes is five couplets to make her fall in love.

McKee is a writer of tremendous gifts. Each poem pays tribute to words, his manipulation of image and a sense of touch. McKee's words distill experience, no matter how tender, how troubling. The poems find their centers in language and in memory. Each poem is constructed out of what the poet knows, the substance of his experience -- that and the emotional context of that experience. In spite of the longing, the loss, these poems somehow make sense.

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Luna de Miel by Laurie MacDiarmid is available from Cassandra Press, St. Norbert College, 100 Grant Street, De Pere, WI 54115.

Loose Change by Louis McKee is available from Marsh River Press, M233 Marsh Road, Marshfield, WI 54449.

______________________________

Karla Huston has published poetry, fiction, and non-fiction in several state and national publications, including The Wisconsin Academy Review, The Wisconsin Review, Cimarron Review, Nightsun, The Comstock Review, Rattle,
and others. She serves on the board of directors for the Fox Valley Writing Project and the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets.



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