MORTAL TRASH, Kim Addonizio’s sixth collection of poetry, puts the feelings it generates through a ping-pong match at Olympic level. Even the briefest and most direct pieces, in which most of the 10 or 12 lines are blunt declaratives, can rocket from despair to wisecracks and back again. Overall the impression is of work at once gloomier and wittier than she’s ever brought off. The bipolar affect isn’t new for this writer, as she followed up Tell Me (2000), a catalog of romantic failures and a finalist for the National Book Award, with the more boisterous and lascivious Lucifer at the Starlite in 2009. But the latter set actually stands taller, as a poetic accomplishment, and the new one could well top it.
In Mortal Trash, the final “Eulogy” may open with dead parents, but they’re imaged as quotidian oddities:
My mother was a day moon,
My father a missing shoe.
Over the next handful of lines Addonizio somersaults into a Portrait of the Artist as Small Appliance: “My brain had two settings, / puree and liquefy.” What’s worse, yet also laughable, the machine fails to start: “I grew up / according to legend, / but only a little.” Yet after that, in the closing, the “legend” goes downbeat:
I have turned to stone.
Now you can touch me
The swift shifts in mood are typical as I say, but those final lines raise a solidity, a memorial perhaps, which suggests a hero or saint — the same impossible role often assigned to the poet. Indeed, the task of juggling pain and play can seem the one to which a poet is born. So while Mortal Trash often speaks with ghosts, brothers as well as parents, plus many an “undead love,” few haunt the pages so much as long-gone poets themselves.
Shakespeare shadows the title in a mash-up — Addonizio’s preferred form of appropriation. The device proves winning indeed throughout the “Sonnets” section. The form isn’t quite the same the Bard used, but it’s close enough to titillate, with off-rhymes and, now and again, lines of five iambs. Likewise, though the sonnets are numbered, the sequence is riddled with gaps, a fresh and clever embodiment of love torn out and tossed. Similarly, the new “Sonnet 130” brilliantly tweaks the original’s first line — “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” — to read “my mister’s eyes are something all right.”
But “Will Shakespeare” isn’t the only name in this Dark Lady’s book. Trash’s five sections also reference Whitman, Donne, cummings, and others, including Elizabeth Bishop by way of Robert Lowell. Legacy, in short, is much on this poet’s mind. What good is her gift, her voice — a voice she hopes resonates with those that inspired her — when as a creature of flesh and blood she seems to leave behind nothing but trash? The woman’s past 60 now, well beyond Dante’s mezzo cammin — and he too gets a nod, in “Divine,” a wonderful piece with a wicked start: “Oh hell, here’s that dark wood again.” But Dante leaves any poet feeling puny, naturally. He leaves anyone thinking they’ve bought a fake bill of goods, labeled “How to Succeed in Po Biz.”
That phrase, too, comes from Addonizio, another bit of self-deprecating snark, in another book. It’s the title of the defining chapter in Bukowski in a Sundress, a work of nonfiction which appeared within a month of the new selected poems, and which admits early on to tinkering with the same problematic figure: the contemporary poet “who would never be a tenured professor.” A freelancer both economically and romantically, Addonizio’s status is neatly encapsulated in the title she gave these reminiscences, a nasty put-down she heard once from another writer. The life implied by the insult, one that demands improvisation, seems interesting in itself. And it’s true that Addonizio, too, has survived a dysfunctional upbringing: the poet’s parents were successful but distant, and one brother suffered a psychosis that often led to violence. But though potentially intriguing, alas, this material remains unrealized. Addonizio’s memoir, such as it is, comes together flimsily, and what insights it generates feel facile.
Undeniably, Bukowski prompts many a laugh, its associative leaps are often delightful: “My mind, at times a speakeasy teeming with fascinating ideas, now had been raided by the vice squad.” That image, too, cogently expresses why she’ll never be at home in the sober vales of Academe, where theory matters more than ecstasy. Ecstasy, for this author, is the whole point: “I write by heart, the heart shaking itself off like a dog that has nearly drowned in light.” Only the worst sort of Derridean snoot would fail to exclaim “right on!” Unfortunately, though, Addonizio’s haphazard arrangement of chapters, each concerning some past turmoil or latter-day predicament, leads her to raise one loopy toast after another to the same Dionysiac ideal. Another unhappy byproduct of the general lack of direction is the tumble into the obvious, the sentimental:
Once you were girls. You ran around […] like happy savages […] Boys sometimes asked for your number; other girls sometimes asked to kiss you. Now you are Ladies. Now you are Women of a Certain Age, which no one wants to name. None of you has a lover.
Speaking of lovers — well, Bukowski doesn’t, really. The memoir generalizes, rather, praising the guitar skills of a much younger boyfriend but never detailing the more illuminating aspect of December-May affairs, namely, how it broke up. So, too, the visits with Addonizio’s dying mother deliver powerful moments, the final episode in particular, but the elliptical approach leaves damaging gaps. The author’s troubled relationship with mom, certainly, would carry over to the one with her own daughter (the actress Aya Cash). About that relationship, though, Bukowski offers little beyond affirmations of undying love. Not that we doubt her, but any single parent will tell you: It ain’t that easy.
Ultimately, the memoir proves most valuable for how it informs the poetry. Though this author has brought off fine prose (for instance in a 1999 story collection reminiscent of early Mary Gaitskill, In the Box Called Pleasure), Bukowski isn’t nearly so successful. However, when read in combination with the latest poems, it reveals the honest questions behind every smart-aleck remark. When one of the “Sonnets” sketches a “guitar god […] blinding everyone with lightning / building his solo lick by glint,” we think of the musician boyfriend, now gone for good. Likewise “Eulogy” gains in power when we know how out of touch those parents could be, even before they withdrew beneath a “stone.”
Yet autobiography alone can never account for the arresting shapes this artist gives her Trash. Indeed, the new collection values poetic tradition, poetic form more than any of her previous. The set features one obvious ars poetica, one of the funniest pieces, “Introduction to Poetry”: “…thou shalt use no archaic diction, / lest ye be stoned. In the biblical sense of the word.” Neat trick: The woman both gives the orders and violates them. Similarly, another of the standouts, “Seasonal Affective Disorder,” laments how an acronym like “SAD” can replace “a sense of ennui, a listlessness or lassitude” while also taking pleasure in how pop culture iconography has replaced that of religion: “whirled up to heaven / like a cow shining in a tornado.” That poem has a loose gait, its lines running to 15 syllables and more, but it handles enjambment with the skill of a master butcher.
The pieces that depend most on meter and rhyme — or something like it, something more playful — are the “Sonnets,” to be sure. Here, too, the memoir informs our reading — we can glimpse an old boyfriend or two peeking through the broken pentameter — but what matters more is picking up that beat and discerning other patterns beneath the clown face. Such discoveries again yield this book’s big two-hearted prodigy, comic and tragic at once, as in a later line from Sonnet 130: “float like a dead man sting like a wound.”
Even more of a revelation is the rigor Addonizio exercises in an earlier, shorter section, “Over the Bright and Darkened Lands.” The phrase is another appropriation, filched from Auden’s doom-riddled “September 1, 1939” (full disclosure: I double-checked, using the Poetry Foundation website). She also makes free with the original poem’s setting, a “dive”; in Trash, this section comprises just five poems, all quick downhill runs through the flotsam and jetsam of a night at the bar. Then too, all unfold with a formality idiosyncratic but, in its way, as strict as Auden’s. Each begins with some echo of the past, as in “But Have Not Love,” ringing rueful changes on Corinthians:
If I lick men, and angels,
They will take me to dinner.
The bells bang all winter.
Angels are picky eaters.
They don’t like animals.
Nothing that can be ordered.
“But Have Not Love” continues for another seven lines, running longer than most in the section, but maintains the mood of a dark fairy tale. Its angels, oddballs that they are, can’t prevent the poet from seeing “the future / in my burned mirror. / Blacker, and nearer.” Yet the grimness of this closing, with its blackened crisps, transcends the ruin as well, via that highly flammable medium, the poem. A set like Mortal Trash, so rare and paradoxical in its despairing frivolity, reasserts the art’s power to create order, and to instill meaning.