Catherine Pierce, Famous Last Words, Saturnalia
I long ago stopped keeping track of the books that received first-book competition awards, for the volume of competitions has steadily increased over the years while the quality of the offerings seemed to decline. I now trust only a few competitions, and even then they do not always meet my expectations . If, however, more of these first books were like Catherine Pierce’s Famous Last Words, I would reconsider. Pierce’s book won the 2007 Saturnalia Prize (selected that year by John Yau), but it possesses none of the signs of a first book. Her ambitions are high, but she often meets those ambitions–variety of topic with a consistency of voice, a willingness to dabble outside of the mainstream of poetry, and a substantial command of language balanced by grace and simplicity.
Famous Last Words is divided into three parts. Part one is a section of “love” poems but not sappy, sentimental verse best left to private endearments. Instead, Pierce provides us with eight poems of love to abstract topics. The titles “Love Poem to Sinister Moments,” “Love Poem to America,” and “Love Poem to a Blank Space” indicate that these are no common subjects at which we address our “love.” These poems are almost journal-like entries, dealing with private, best-left-unsaid thoughts. Yet, as voyeurs, they match our own fears, concerns, and desires. Here are a few lines from “Love Poem to a Blank Space”:
You are pure as soil,
simple as bone. The taste
of you transparent. I love
your dumb grace,
your unfelt presence.
A concise language (notice that Pierce left out a potential “as” in front of “pure,” which is telling), simple images, and a willingness to dip into synesthesia or other abstractions are a marked distinction throughout this book. Pierce never seems to let a poem get out of her control; at the same time, no poem here seems constricted or forced or limited.
The second and longest section has no specific, overarching theme but retains many strong elements of the first section. Perhaps the strongest poem, “Apostrophe to the First Gray Hair,” of the collection is here. Again, it shows the control and concision that Pierce maintains.
O small silver rope by whose noose
I will, if lucky, hang—
You are the highway’s white stripe
dividing toward from away.
The hairline fracture
on a slowly swaying bridge.
Light plummeting earthward
years after the star has turned dark.
The title of the poem suggests initially something frivolous, a toss away. Most people gray and many lament, but Pierce links it to the cosmos so elegantly, with such grace that it seems implausible that we ever thought this poem was going to be anything less significant than about the death of stars and the lapse of time.
This poem shows another very strong feature of Pierce’s work–she knows how to end a poem. While delivering them out of context can hamper their effect, still the best way to understand the effects she can achieve is to quote a few of them:
which card will send
the house tumbling down.
(“Love Poem to Sinister Moments”)
the sky into pieces
(“Love Poem to the Word Lonesome”)
shimmers, a placebo. As it falls,
I close my mouth around it.
(“While You Sleep, I Watch Myself Die”)
These are forceful, make-you-stop-and-read-again endings. A poet can do much wrong in a poem and regain everything with a strong ending. So much the better when Pierce does not do much wrong. Her weakest moments are the two prose poems: “Project Yourself Here” and “Postcards Nos 1-6.” A prose poem must be singularly lyrical to evade being just prose, while at the same time avoiding a perpetually charged language (imagine if Dylan Thomas wrote only prose poems). While Pierce possesses such skills, her strength is in using them with timing and not overly frequently to maintain their value. In longer poems, Pierce uses more prosaic lines to break a series of intense lines, for example “Domesticity”:
The night slips around me
and the bedroom is lit
with a strand of small lights.
My body admits to calm.
But here the definitive line breaks create the tension that the more prosaic second and third lines might lack in regular prose.
The final section is a set of poems framed around someone’s famous last words: Billy the Kid, George Appel, Marie Antoinette, Doc Holliday, Isadora Duncan, Joseph Henry Green, and Pancho Villa. Each poem’s title consists of the last words of the subject of the poem and all are in third-person view. What is really interesting in these poems is the subtlety and variety Pierce achieves and how she expands and intuits beyond the “meaning” of the last words. Each of the subjects is well visualized, but the third-person view provides Pierce an opportunity to fill in some details or hypothesize. This is a strong group of poems, but perhaps the most interesting one is Pancho Villa’s, which ends the collection overall: “Don’t Let It End Like This. Tell Them I Said Something.” While clearly appropriate for a poet to end with such flair, the poem itself is deliciously inspired. Villa’s direct thoughts or words cut into the narrative of the poem, providing a backdrop often at odds with the narrative.
But he bloodied the countryside. Is rumored
to have killed to fulfill a thirst, to have shot the priest
who begged for mercy. Do we serve him thus?
Fuck the dogs.
Kill them for me.
Yet Villa and the narrator conclude and desire the same thing:
the need for the right words. How else
can we live forever? How else
can we write ourselves in?
On that question ends this delightful collection of poems. Pierce begins with love to abstractions and ends with a reliance on language to not only make sense of our lives but to give eternal life to our lives. Given the strength of this collection, I expect we’ve not yet read Pierce’s last words, and I look forward to her next words.
Patrick Kanouse’s poems have appeared in many journals and websites, including Smartish Pace, The Connecticut Review, The Evansville Review, and Astropoetica among others. He is a managing editor with a technology publisher in Indianapolis. You can read his poems at www.patrickkanouse.com.