A Brief Way to Identify a Body
poems, by Devon Balwit
Ursus Americanus Press (2018)
Devon Balwit is a master of writing poems in conversation with other artists. She has written three other books inspired by writers and artists. In the case of this particular collection, all of the poems have an epigraph from a Sylvia Plath poem (save one), and a couple have epigraphs from Lucia Perillo’s writing. One immediately gets the sense from the gorgeous painting on the cover alone, that the speaker of these poems came to do battle. Whether it’s a battle of female against her responsibilities as a mother, the battle of female vs. her mate, or the female self vs. herself, no dark feeling of female “selfhood” is left unturned in the light of this poet’s words.
The book’s cover art by Cristina Troufa depicts what appears to be a fight between two women. One straddles the other’s back, pulling her hair out in great tufts, an angry grimace on her face. On closer inspection the women appear to be identical, and the metaphor of self vs. self is realized. Women at war with themselves is a predominant theme in the book. The image seems to mirror these lines from Plath’s poem “The Other”: “Cold glass, how you insert yourself// between myself and myself./I scratch like a cat.” Plath’s poem is the inspiration for Balwit’s poem “Smilingly, Blue Lightning Assumes, Like a Meathook”. The title and the poem contain words found in Plath’s and make them distinctly her own: “…riding my shrieking// navel cord, a sticky pulse, a sucking/ breath…The mirror/ presages the death mask, blank// eyes my daughters will struggle/ to kindle. My womb of marble.”
This theme of self vs. self is exemplified in the opening poem “Detritus”. Taking its inspiration from Plath’s poem “Amnesiac”, the speaker is fixing a “stuck knob” and finds all kinds of ephemera had been inside. The “old happenings” from Plath’s poem morph into the question: “whose is this crumple/ of paper, the only thing on it/ an I? Such nothings, yet/ they scathe. The burn of me,/ too, someday, gone—nothing/ remaining wanted—”. Those familiar with Elizabeth Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room” will hear her influence as well in these lines in particular. Some of these poems with their razor sharp zeroing in on the soul/selfhood of the speaker, ruminating on what they might leave behind, and who might care, have Bishop’s image-rich stamp upon them as well as Plath’s and Perillo’s.
Whether the poems are jumping off points from Plath’s poems, or engaged in conversation with them, they are clearly their own entities and hold their own power by themselves. There is no borrowed word or phrase that isn’t earned. As in “The Darling’s Darling”, which takes its title from a line in Perillo’s poem of empathy and envy, “I Could Name Some Names” and also references Plath’s poem “Fever 103”, in Balwit’s hands, the ego and the self are described as “convicts, self-shackled,/ Ego in her tower, glowering,/ finger on the walkie talkie.”
Readers do not have to be familiar with Plath or Perillo in order to find these poems’ merit. Their consistent use of sound elements and image as metaphor are just some of the ways in which they enter the soul of the reader. Reading them alongside Plath and Perillo is certainly a good way to deepen their meaning, but isn’t essential. The only poem with an epigraph by Perillo alone is called “Fated” and contains the line that titles the book. It begins: “And what is a birthmark but a brief/ way to identify a body, a tattoo chosen/ …Everything matters until the next thing/matters more…” Readers will feel not only their own mortality in these words, but gain the sense that as long as we are alive, choices remain, whatever our fate may be.
Devon Balwit‘s most recent collection is titled A Brief Way to Identify a Body (Ursus Americanus Press). Her individual poems can be found here as well as in The Cincinnati Review, Tampa Review, Fifth Wednesday (on-line), apt, Grist, and Rattle among others. For more on her book and movie reviews, chapbooks, collections and individual works, see her website at: https://pelapdx.wixsite.com/devonbalwitpoet
Jessica Purdy has lived in New England all her life. Having majored in both English and Studio Art at UNH, she feels drawn to the visual in both art and poetry. She has worked as an art teacher and a writing teacher. Currently, she teaches Poetry Workshops at Southern New Hampshire University. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College. In 2015, she was a featured reader at the Abroad Writers’ Conference in Dublin, Ireland. Her poems have appeared in many journals, including The Plath Poetry Project, The Ekphrastic Review, The Light Ekphrastic, SurVision, The Wild Word, isacoustic, Nixes Mate Review, Bluestem Magazine,The Telephone Game, The Tower Journal, and The Cafe Review, among others. Her chapbook, Learning the Names, was published in 2015 by Finishing Line Press. Her book STARLAND was published in 2017 by Nixes Mate Books. Her latest book, Sleep in a Strange House, has just been released in October 2018, also with Nixes Mate Books.