Aldrich Press/Kelsay Books.
80 pp. 2017.
The great English critic Matthew Arnold once said that he had no respect for the Romantic poets–you know, Shelley, Wordsworth, Byron–because they didn’t know enough. He would not level such a charge against Rosemary Badcoe, who in her remarkable first collection, Drawing a Diagram, so amply and skillfully demonstrates that she knows a great deal – about science, about history, about art, and most importantly for a poet, about writing poetry. Here’s a taste of what I mean (pun very much intended), one of my favorite poems in the book:
for consciousness in cephalopods
won’t prevent you from slicing and frying.
I imagine three hearts (faintly greenish) slowing
and dying; watch as your fingers cram stuffing,
wonder how you’re not seeing the resemblance
of you to that squid –
the variable skin that flickers and changes
to suit the surroundings, the boneless
writhing hastening escape. Its preoccupations
are yours: if you had those arms, it wouldn’t
surprise me to find the subtle mutation of hands
to hectocotyli, honed only to harness
the female. I write you a note, and like squid
use the ink to depart.
I love this poem for several reasons. I love the form. It’s a sonnet – a love poem really — with a sestet and an octet, without rhyme, but with a rhythmical propulsion that characterizes all her poems. William Stafford would have called it an Oregon sonnet. I love the tension, the unresolved conflict between the first person speaker and the “you” being addressed. Who is he, this preparer of this seafood dinner? Husband? Lover? We know he is a he because his “mutation of hands/to hectocotyli” are used “only to harness/the female.” And that word — wow, that poem of a single word “hectocotyli” – which sent me straightaway to the dictionary. (Plural of hectocotylus: “a modified arm used by male octopuses and some other cephalopods to transfer sperm to the female.”) The last poet who made me do that was Galway Kinnell. And I love his poems. I love doing that. Stopping in the middle of a poem to look up a word. I love going back to the poem with the word still warm from the oven of the dictionary in my mouth. I love reading this poem out loud, especially the alliteration of “hands,” “hectocotyli,” “honed,” “harness.” I love the ending, the reversal of identity, unexpected but at the same time, as inevitable as the final cadence of a Mozart symphony.
Say, did I just write a love poem to a poem? Indeed, I did, and if a book review could be a love poem to a book of poems, then you’re looking at it, for I do indeed love this book. In their wit and humor, in their precision of language and clear-eyed vision of truth, in their sensibility, and yes, in their wisdom too, these poems remind me of Stevie Smith. In fact, Badcoe acknowledges this kinship in another “Oregon sonnet” (two stanzas of seven lines this time), “Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning”:
She had it wrong, the girl who thought
she knew waving from drowning,
could tell the edge of life from its middle,
see shape and bone change to the flat
of ocean. Drowning is the desperate quiet,
the body pinned upright, the line
where sea meets air.
Those who yell and splash still have time
for speech, to strike a bargain with a wave,
debate the motion of the tides.
Look instead for ones who gaze at you
with blinded eyes, already treading
some internal stair; climbing a ladder
that isn’t there.
But Badcoe’s voice is truly unique–controlled, disciplined, nuanced, subtle, yet full to bursting with feeling. I urge you to read the above poems aloud, or if you know one, ask a musician or singer friend to read them aloud to you. Get this book and do likewise with all the compelling poems therein.
Here’s an encore:
Regard the chart of Metabolic Pathways.
I’m tussling with the wiring plan, as if
I read the notes of Mozart’s 26th in words
(crotchet, crotchet, minor fifth), recite them
to a violin and see the symphony unfurl.
I zoom to fatty acid synthesis. Enzymes
toss tunes between themselves, arpeggios
of proton flows. I’m only catching snatches
of a piece that plays, conductorless. It’s complicated,
more so than the birth and death of stars.
But less so than the brain that peers inside itself,
sees life happen, and draws a diagram.
Rosemary Badcoe sees life happening and draws the diagram in memorable words. Robert Frost said that a poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom. Drawing a Diagram is a book that begins in delight, continues in delight, ends in delight, and contains generous amounts of wisdom on every page.