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Cities of Flesh and the Dead

By: Diann Blakely
Reviewed by: Jennifer Horne
Elixir Press, 2008
$17, Paperback

Working from the outside in: this handsomely designed book in a seven-by-ten-inch format has a consequential heft in the hand and gives pleasure throughout to the eye. The promises made by the physical aesthetics of the book are more than satisfied by Blakely’s work within.

Cities of Flesh and the Dead, Blakely’s third book, is composed of five sections which hold nineteen poems, many of them long and sequenced. Some are in memoriam poems for other poets: Anthony Hecht, Lynda Hull, William Matthews, and Herbert Morris. Because of this, an elegiac tone runs through the book, but it is by no means the only note struck.

Part of what we find in poems, we bring there ourselves, but I was struck over and over again by Blakely’s balancing: of contemporary and colloquial language and imagery with accomplished use of formal structures and meters; of the self and how it shifts in different settings, at home in the South or, sometimes, strangely more at home abroad; of the tensions and contradictions of family relationships. These poems seem necessary. They have an urgency about them—as though the writing of the poem is part of the balancing act of staying alive.

Blakely, on the evidence of these poems, is well read and widely traveled, and she has been paying close attention to the world she lives in. To give a laundry list of some of the subjects that appear in her poems: the movie Psycho, violence in Northern Ireland, Jack the Ripper, paintings by deKooning in the Guggenheim, Federico Garcia Lorca, T. S. Eliot and his wife Vivienne, snake handling, Antonioni, Warhol, Aristotle, Gone with the Wind, Anne Sexton, New Orleans, Pee Wee Herman, Leni Riefenstahl, country music, and Caravaggio. There’s even a series about Tina Turner, in ten “call and response” sonnets. In a less confident or mature poet, such variety might come off as faux erudition, but Blakely’s accomplishment is to convince this reader that she has internalized each allusion, so that, like the collage art by Peter Goodwin on the cover of her book, it’s all connected in her imagination.

Because of Blakely’s honesty in looking at violence, sexual power dynamics, losses, and existential alienation, her moments of transcendence feel earned. In “Home Thoughts from Abroad,” a sonnet sequence in ten sections, the speaker in section #2 describes her mother “shriek[ing]”: “I hate babies—they mess up your nice things.” Yet, in #8, the speaker, now an adult, thinks of her mother, “How tired she looks, and worn” and asks, “God, what forms can / Love take except the smudged, the failed, the human?” Another poem, “Antidepressive” says of a painting ascribed to Caravaggio, “Sure, it’s just art” but suggests that art, in dark times, might be just the thing to pull us through. Dec 2008

Jennifer Horne is the poetry book reviews editor for First Draft Reviews Online.

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