Sex At Noon Taxes, Sally Van Doren, Louisiana State University Press
“A linguaphile’s dream” is the description that comes to mind when reading Sally Van Doren’s first book of poetry, which won the Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets in 2007. Beginning with the palindromic title Sex At Noon Taxes, this collection is all about words and the myriad grammatical devices within the English language. Van Doren’s remarkable ear for rhythm and sound is immediately apparent, and the reader cannot help but be pulled into her obvious sense of joy in language. The strength of this book is the way she fits words together in often surprising ways to create new and delightful effects of sound, rhythm, and syntax. She does not shy away from lowbrow references, either, if they contribute to the fun, as in “Pasture”:
Categorize a cough.
Catch a calf, laugh,
fart. Forget the phonics
of the focal/fecal. Phrase
fashion and effuse. Frigid
sapphirine captures the
In this example, as in many of the other poems, the sound and rhythm of each word is depended upon heavily for effect. Rhyme, alliteration, assonance, consonance, even parts of speech – no trick of language and poetry is left unused. These are tools available to any writer who has been to middle school, but Van Doren uses them in a way that is truly special.
The emphasis on word play and sound combination is a strategy akin to l=a=n=g=u=a=g=e=p=o=e=t=r=y, to which Van Doren refers – with an arguably appropriate lack of clarity of meaning – in the poem “Story”:
Once you forgot
an enemy stomped
on your bigamist
to anomaly. Purge
purse and narrate.
Several of the poems in the collection not only make use of the grammatical tools of the English language, but also attempt to define the very devices they use. Poems such as “Preposition,” “Conjunction,” and “Pronoun/Preposition” are obvious examples. From “Pronoun/Punctuation”:
He who parsed us left us with a floating
colon, an ellipsis enjambed by a full-stop.
We had paced with a question
taped to our backs; in post-op
it slimmed to an exclamation point.
Commas shadow us; brackets enclose
Van Doren’s nod to the l=a=n=g=u=a=g=e=p=o=e=t=r=y aesthetic seems appropriate given the way she tends to use words as objects separate from their meanings, but even such accomplished word play can’t carry an entire collection. By the point at which we reach the three poems on parts of speech, the reader begins to feel as if he or she has picked up an eccentrically-written grammar book. Too, when the trope makes up all the content of the poem, the poet’s self-consciousness is glaring, as is a certain lack of depth – an absence of emotional connection, tension, or transition. At first the reader may be so taken with the skillful use of language that she would overlook the lack of substance, but when there are dozens of one-dimensional poems in a row, the shallow nature of them becomes readily apparent.
Toward the end of the collection, Van Doren depends less on linguistic devices and more on image with a dash of the narrative that, in particular, deals with matters of women and girls. Here, Van Doren’s use of figurative language is well-wrought and interesting, and her lyricism is well-crafted, but these poems also lack emotional resonance or charge. Van Doren sets up a scene, situation, or question in each poem, but then tends to stop or trail off too early, failing to surprise, transform, or emotionally engage the reader.
Despite these shortcomings, Van Doren has a command of language and an ear for musicality that few contemporary poets can claim to possess, and this is no small accomplishment. It should be remembered, as well, that this is her first collection. When her work develops the substance to match her use of language, it will be a knockout.