Blameless Mouth by Jessica Fox-Wilson

Blameless Mouth by Jessica Fox-WilsonThere are — it occurs to me as I finish this book — too many love poems in the world, and not nearly enough poems about desire. But before I sat down with Blameless Mouth this morning my attitude was, I’m ashamed to say, more skeptical. I’d read two or three of the poems quickly, like a shopper, like a consumer, like one of the protagonists in this book: wanting it, maybe on the strength of the elegant cover, but not really sure I needed it. How original, I said to myself, poems about hunger — one of those words like bone or stone or scrim or palimpsest that makes me raise an eyebrow when I encounter it in a poem. The title of the book even comes from a line in a poem called “Hunger.” Yikes! But as the lead singer of the legendary underground thrash-metal band Violence once said: If you’re gonna call yourself that, you’d better be able to deliver the goods. And, as it turns out, Fox-Wilson definitely delivers the goods.

The book has what I guess you could call a fugal structure, with the same stories repeating in different keys: Eve and the apple, Grimm’s fairy tales, a child in a shipwreck, a placeless Middle American upbringing, the blandishments of glossy magazines. Even the sort-of title poem appears again at the end of the poem, as “Hunger, Revised,” which is such a cool idea I wish I’d thought of it first. One effect of this was a kind of obsessive feel that intensified as I proceeded through the book, pausing only for lunch. Fox-Wilson may not be the first American poet to tackle the subject of consumption and consumerism, but why should she be? There could hardly be a more crucial topic for our national discourse, should we ever decide to have one. And off-hand, I can’t remember the last time I saw it done so well.

O.K., this is the part of the inevitably inadequate review where I try to compensate for its inadequacy by quoting liberally from the book under consideration. I like animal poems, so naturally “Feeding Habits of Foxes” would’ve appealed to me even without the clever autobiographical turn at the end:

I think I am afraid
of my own natural red hair,
point of my teeth, my silent
stalking ways. No matter

which cage I put you in,
I cannot escape
our common name.

In “Waiting for Snow White,” a girl standing in line with her family at Disneyland has her menarche. The opening lines set the scene perfectly:

I waited in line for the ride when it happened,
swallowed in a thick red stream of sweating, sunburned

One of the magazine poems is called “I Turn the Page, Like Waving a White Flag,” a title which could almost stand on its own as a micropoem. It ends with the speaker wistfully recalling “my life before// all my purchases,” a moment in her childhood when she sat on a swing eating a slice of watermelon with uncomplicated pleasure, how delicious it was, and

how I giggled
with my mouth still full. Where is my receipt

for that moment? I need to know. What was
the price for that young girl’s joyful pink heart?

Due to following a lot of blogs by Buddhists and those influenced by Buddhism over the years, not to mention my own environmentalism, I suppose I’ve been led to consider this topic of wanting and the mental habits that feed it more than most people. So I think it would be unfair of me to make very much out of the three or four poems in the book that struck me as less than amazing, because they may strike readers not as accustomed to the topic as essential. What’s really worth focusing on here is that the book as a whole is engrossing, inventive and never descends to didacticism as it wrestles with its sexy but disturbing questions: “Can we teeter together/ on this knife’s edge/ of having and wanting”? “[W]hen I finally/ touch the center,/ what will I find”?

I’m reading a book a day for Poetry Month, but I’m also hoping some folks will join me and fellow poet-blogger Kristin Berkey-Abbott to read four of those books, one a week starting April 3 — or even just one of the four. Details here.