Punish honey by Karen Leona Anderson
(Carolina Wren Press, Durham, NC, 2009)
I was worried. Worried after the first section of poems. Worried I was going to have to write a negative review. How could you do this to me, Carolina Press? How could you, Karen Leona Anderson?
An evil specter is haunting us. A terrible legacy has been handed down to contemporary American poetics. We have to fight from the start. Negative capability is the norm. Objective correlativism relegates us to an intellectual and spiritual poverty. Even inscape enslaves. Punish honey seems to be following the lead into negativism.
Good thing I was wrong. Punish honey takes a beautiful leap, starting from that all-too-familiar bank. Once over the abyss, it doesn’t look back. Anderson sticks a ten point landing better than Mary Lou Retton, delivering us to a new starting point rooted in optimism.
The book is divided into three sections: Tulips, Bees, The Animal Parliament. Each section contains about a dozen poems. A natural progression leads the reader into an exploration of the external environment in Tulips and of the internal self in Bees. The third section takes an expansive approach. Punish honey lures us with its refreshing language and takes us on a beautiful and thoughtful journey.
The first section begins with so much self-doubt, one cannot help but feel sorry for the subject and pity for the author. Does it really have to begin this way, I thought to myself. The poem "Gordon Cooper" contains lines: "and I, full of every grey the world could provide," and "I was a fathead full of pain," and "In a van the world departs." The book sets up the self as an obstacle and I couldn’t help but wonder if this path towards negativism is where Anderson wants us to go.
While the poet does establish a wonderful command of language, I question her economy with it. She uses language uniquely yet she throws around extra, un-needed words. For example, in the same poem, “Gordon Cooper,” she writes, "moved thing by thing to the radio station and sang or sing / all the songs like 'Yes I am the One Who is Sobbing’ / I could think of." The "thing by thing" and the "sang… sing… song" seem cute. The reader has to assume such execution is purposeful, so I give Anderson the benefit of the doubt. She confuses and teases with her word choices and style. I was reluctant, but somehow I knew the answer would be in the book. So I put my trust in Anderson. I read on and dove into the hive.
The second section, "Bees," had me questioning my misgivings: It has a cohesion, not just thematically, but in the language itself. The dine-and-dash language seems to stick around longer and even pay the bill. "Bees" focuses on specifics, beginning with the first poem which leaves wondering what life would be like with “nothing left with to sting.” The individual poem titles in this section are named after things that might be of concern for bees, such as "Requeen," "Scopa," and "Robber Bee." The section is a metaphor for how social structures might look from a bee’s perspective, as in the veracious meat-eating bees in her poem, “Horseflesh” leaving bones clean “in six days cold.”
The poem "Cuckoo" is a turning poem for me. It is an apology for one's shortcomings, whether bird, bee or human. It tells us we all may be a little cuckoo, whether for harboring self-doubt about appearance, or for going on a crazy date despite our own reluctance. We tap into our cuckoo-ness. She writes,
I dressed to kill
and killed so that the rest of us didn’t have to,
says the glitterfed and better date,
excellent in nest and empty-handed,
opening the sporty door of some convertible.
Come on, get in, it’s for the good of everyone.
Despite my doubts, I stepped into the car and shut the door, saying, “Let’s go!" before my ass even hit the seat.
Section three, “The Animal Parliament” really delivers. It begins with the triptych “Fur Coats,” the second of which, “Blue Fur Collar Coat,” has me feeling that getting out of the negative, instead of operating in it, is her impulse. While it contains words that invoke a void and a negative impulse, such as “cavity,” “we cannot say with truth,” and “old,” “clumped,” and “dumb,” it offers a chance to elude our own negative potential with the final few lines:
Or I’ve got it: I bet you slipped the noose, and
this is just your faux hair, the way my eyes are rimmed
with bone and therefore look only ahead:
I’m sorry. The cold tore down. I needed to get
in front of me, and I needed a way to go.
Here, Anderson shakes loose the shackles; whether it’s the shackles of mourning, loss of life, or even my own assumption of the preoccupation of negativism in American poetry.
The final section brings the collection into sharp focus. The poem, “Gas Pump,” is full of Anderson’s signature energetic language; it tips its hat to the purveyors of doubt, and offers us an entrance onto the promenade of growth. It starts with words such as, “slunk,” and “half-paid.” And from this poem, mired in oil and spills, we get this in the final couplet:
It is a value: down at the tomato stand:
hurt and ugly, but three for free.
Why so glum? Bounty and kindness abound.
Karen Leona Anderson weaves an internal story of loss and recovery that also serves as a framework for a larger discussion about modern poetics. Throughout Punish honey, Anderson forced me to crack open the shell of my own skepticism. I acquiesced to her style, feeling for the message.
As I said earlier, it was difficult for me to locate myself in the hullabaloo of language tossed around in this book. I was reading myself into her text, I thought, misreading the poems with my own baggage. Anderson taught me to trust the text. I did, and it paid off in sweet, delectable honey: the title itself forces us to question why we are punishing ourselves.
Punish honey makes us question the impact poetry has on the human psyche. It forces us to question how we use words. Are we going to use them to wound, talk about our shortcomings, and further subjugate ourselves to the machine, continuing the tradition of Eliot, Hopkins, Keats and the modernists? Or are we going to use our words to celebrate our full human (spiritual) potential, carrying forward the torch of Blake, Crane and Ashbery? Are we going to dwell in sorrow and absence or sing praise through the cornucopia of human experience? What are we going to do?
Eric Wayne Dickey's poetry and translations have appeared in Rhino, International Poetry Review, and West Wind Review. Online, his poems can be found at www.talkingwriting.com, www.blazevox.org, www.4and20poetry.com, www.toegoodpoetry.com, and www.argotistonline.co.uk. He lives in Corvallis, Oregon.