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The Second Blush

By: Molly Peacock
Reviewed by: Russ Kesler
W.W. Norton, 2008
$23.95, Hardcover

The poems in Molly Peacock’s sixth collection, The Second Blush, are playful and insouciant, but also unafraid to look deeply and honestly at the vagaries of human relationships, whether marriage or friendship. And as always with Peacock’s work, a formal element, particularly in this case riffs on the sonnet form, provides another layer of polish and opportunities for joy in experimentation.

The focus in this collection ranges widely, from poems on the death of a cat to a grandmother’s rocking chair to yoga class. But the book often returns to the motif of intimate domestic interiors, particularly a husband’s surviving a life-threatening illness, and how that has compelled the speaker of the poems to see the marriage with a renewed sense of wonder and gratefulness. In “Confession,” the speaker observes her husband “Not in a collar, / but in his sweatpants // unshaven, tousled, / not much to you, reader, // but to me / shining like a leaf // in the after-rain sun.” And “The Flaw” acknowledges the fragility inherent in life and in relationships, and how that can become an important element in sustaining love: 

        The flaw we live by, the wrong color floss, 
        now breathes among the uniform strands 
        and, because it does not match, 
        makes a red bird fly, 
        turning blue field into sky. 
        It is almost, after long silence, a word 
        spoken aloud, a hand saying through the flaw, 
        I’m alive, discovered by your eye.

At least half of the fifty poems in The Second Blush are sonnets or “in the vicinity” of the sonnet. Peacock delights in the flexibility of that form. In “Of Night,” the first poem in the book, she decides (or the poem decides?) that each line will end with the same phrase: 

        A city mouse darts from the paws of night. 
        A body drops from the jaws of night. 
        A woman denies the laws of night, 
        awake and trapped in the was of night.

And “Faraway” employs variations on a phrase, “so far,” “this far,” “far away,” “but too far,” being interwoven with more conventional line endings. Inevitably, humor and playfulness result from such experimentation, but the poems never feel as though they exist primarily to say, “Look what I can do,” since while they push the boundaries of form they are also a kind of theme and variation that explore the tensions and pleasures inherent in making marriage and friendship united.

The poems in The Second Blush exude a quiet confidence in the ways in which they shape themselves, a sense that a lifetime of practice and study are behind such usages, and a sheer joy in the ways in which pattern and variation can create meaning. Molly Peacock’s poems are worth close study for the ways in which they challenge formal expectations, but they also deliver the down-home truths for which we come to poetry in the first place. April 2009

Russ Kesler’s collection of poems, A Small Fire, was published in 2001.

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