Cities of Flesh and the Dead, Diann Blakely, Elixir Press
This has been a difficult review to write. Some poets and some poems are so simply themselves there is little a critic can do to illuminate the poems other than say, “Read these.” One thinks of Donald Justice or Philip Larkin. To this list, I would add Diann Blakely and her wonderful new collection Cities of Flesh and the Dead. This is not to say that there is nothing to praise in Blakely’s new book. Readers can point to the brilliant textures of her language, her supple ease with forms, or the relentless questioning of her poems. Yet, the poems are so complete that critical commentary doesn’t add much.
In Bad Blood, the collection’s opening poem, Blakely begins with the image of a woman who stares “wild eyed” when “death/ That black winged angel/ Appears without warning.” A few lines later, we realize that the woman staring in horror is Janet Leigh in the movie Psycho. Thus, the opening lines of the book present concerns with which the entire collection will wrestle. The collection, Blakely’s third in just under two decades, juxtaposes the mortality of flesh with the brands of immortality offered by art wondering what consolation art can offer us as we busy ourselves with dying. This answer varies from reader to reader and probably from day to day; Blakely is too canny a poet to venture a prescription (“Take two Modiglianis and call me in the morning”). What she does is provide us with a clutch of beautiful and excoriating poems that force us to confront the fact of mortality even as we revel in the beauty of these well-made and crucial poems.
This is tricky territory, and it is also poetry’s oldest battleground. Thoroughly contemporary, these poems align themselves with tradition by utilizing form and meter so craftily that it never calls attention to itself and through a reverence for those already departed. Many of the departed are poets: there are elegies in this book for poets William Matthews and Lynda Hull (both of whom Blakely knew) and remembrances of or dedications to Lorca, Anthony Hecht, Herbert Morris, and Philip Larkin. These deaths are important not only for the way in which they remember and honor the dead but for the way they turn the speaker and the reader of these poems back upon his or her own life. “What is mid-life,” Blakely asks in Itinerary, one of a group of sonnets dedicated to the lavishly talented Lynda Hull, who died in 1994 (readers would do well to seek out a copy of Hull’s Collected Poems, recently published by Graywolf), “when every long distance call/ And letter seems to shriek sad news or loss.”
If poetry is one of the art forms providing some consolation for the writer of these poems, then the others are cinema and music. This is as it should be; most poets of Blakely’s (and my) generation have logged far more time in front of the stereo and the movie screen than seated in opera houses or wandering through art galleries. Thus, Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love, Tina Turner, the anonymous music makers of Memphis and Nashville, and even Pee Wee Herman appear in these pages. But art alone is no consolation; Blakely finds solace in the lives of artists who last. While she calls out to and cries for the ones who died young—the Lynda Hulls and Kurt Cobains—another part of her soul is sustained by the example of artists who last and remain productive. A lovely and harrowing sequence of poems in the voice of Mary Jane Kelly, the last known victim of Jack the Ripper, is dedicated to Anthony Hecht, a poet who remained active and productive until his death. A sonnet about the film Pretty Baby is dedicated to Jerry Wexler, the legendary record producer whose career spanned decades. Even the long life and odd career of Leni Riefenstahl, best known for her films glorifying the Third Reich, provide some hope.
There is more going on here than musings on art and tributes to and thoughts of fallen friends and heroes. At every turn, Blakely’s poems confront what it finally means to be alive. The making of art, of things meant to last beyond the artist’s lifetime, must confront a world that simply does not mean for things to last. In Before the Flood: A Solo from New Orleans, a day trip to that city teeters between disillusionment when confronted by “heat already swathing the narrow smelly streets, their beer joints/ and souvenir shops selling masks half price after Mardi Gras.” Yet the speaker, uneasy among “strippers in round the clock bars” and a man kneeling on a street corner “begging for mercy,” finds a footing when a young mother “dealt tarot cards and told my life story so truly I tipped/ her ten dollars with hands/ that shook, then walked smack into two men swapping envelopes.” If this mix of beauty and danger is typical of New Orleans, it is also emblematic of our lives in the early twenty first century. “How can we belong anywhere except by peeling shrimp/ And drinking cheap beer/ Before divining our way back to our hotels, blurred copies/ of Baudelaire’s poems?” the poet asks. The answer to the dilemma of mortality is to ignore our approaching deaths, of course, to immerse ourselves in the pleasures afforded by strange cities, but beer and poems and whatever works of art bring us pleasure.
Blakely has always been a scrupulous poet, one who works at her own pace, and that craft is rewarded in the fine poems that make up Cities of Flesh and the Dead (it is worth noting that the entire book is a very handsome production). The blend of high and pop art in these poems, the attention to craft, the sheer exuberance and precision of the language make this a book that places Blakely alongside some of the masters she names and pays homage to.