In her second book of poetry, Tinderbox Lawn, lesbian author Carol Guess plays with language in a stark examination of identity, location, sex, and mortality in contemporary women’s lives in Seattle and other parts of the U.S.
The book opens with the section “Walk All Ways With Walk,” in which the narrator flees the Midwest, first giving an amusing twist to the stereotypical coastal dweller’s view of the heartland: “In Nebraska words cost more than bread… Nebraska doesn’t give a shit about New York or L.A.” But a little further in, the poem turns grim, linking the slaughterhouse with human murder – perhaps even that of Brandon Teena, the transgender teenager shot to death in rural Nebraska in 1993:
You know how to cover your nose with a cloth to snuff out the smell of the stockyards. You know how to bow your head before dinner, how to close the curtains before you have sex. You know how not to get killed in Nebraska.
The threat of violent death hovers over this book, reminding us that it’s still not safe to be a gender outlaw, whether Brandon Teena or a prostitute. In a number of poems Guess refers, directly and indirectly, to the Green River Killer, who strangled at least 48 women, mostly sex workers, in the Seattle/ Tacoma area in the early 1980s:
These days you can’t get a lap dance in Seattle because the girls are gone… The girls are swimming. See their bright hair. Sleeves billow, angels, as they trouble the water. They float down Green River to the lip of the bay. One day the police find a girl in boxes among the clothes in someone’s closet.
But Tinderbox Lawn teems with life, too. A poem later in the book uses the same water as a love symbol:
New lovers leave the house for the first time. They follow water because following water is what they have been doing. They are learning sea, sun, sky instead of each other’s failures.
I’ll admit my bias: I’m more a fan of narrative poetry, which, in simplest terms, tells a story, than of language poetry, which is concerned more with sound than with sense. Guess’ work is typical of many contemporary poets’: the meaning often takes second place to playing with words, sacrificing depth for the sake of glibness. These poems get downright rhymey-dimey at times. Occasionally it works, as in the grocery store poem in which the queer narrator compares her life to those of the suburbanites around her, concluding with, “Of all the girls you grew up with, claimed, only your surname remains the same.” But more often the rhyme and off-rhyme fail to reveal anything interesting about the narrator, and come off like a creative writing class exercise:
Nervous arrangements of words played house. Red ribbons in my hair like an ornery horse. I went barefoot, pretending I was at the beach. When someone used bleach it stayed in the washer.
In the end it’s unclear whether the narrator will drown in the river or learn the sea. But she continues walking the city, serial killers and ex-lovers be damned: “This isn’t love, but it might be mercy: talking to myself as if the streets might forgive me, fool me into thinking red lights go green.”
By Carol Guess Rose Metal Press
Paperback, $16, 60p