Without That Bottle of Tequila: James Tolan on Kim Addonizio’s Lucifer at the Starlite

Lucifer at the Starlite, Kim Addonizio, WW Norton, 2009

Nearly forty years ago the renowned translator of Zen poetry and under-appreciated poet Lucien Stryk was giving a reading at the University of Pennsylvania. The room was nearly full. As he was about to begin, Barbara Hernstein Smith took the last seat in the front row. She had recently published to much acclaim the critical book Poetic Closure: A Story of How Poems End. Stryk had been introduced to her earlier and was forewarned that she was planning to attend his reading. Afterwards, she came up to him amidst others with whom he was speaking, said, “You end well,” smiled, and left. When the story was recounted to me twenty years later, Stryk was still clearly delighted to have elicited her endorsement of his own poetic endings. Ending poems is tricky business and when the Romantics tossed out the summary couplet a couple hundred years back, things got a whole lot tougher. Many poets go on too long, over explain, appeal to sentiment, stretch toward epiphany, or just fold up shop. Kim Addonizio in her fifth collection is a modern master of endings. To close the title poem:

For every forward step a stumbling.
A shadow over every starlit thing.

To end “Storm Catechism”:

The waters will be rising soon.
Find someone or something to cling to.

“Verities,” included by Billy Collins in Best American Poetry 2006, ends:

A stitch in time saves no one.
The darkest hour comes.

From “The Smallest Town Alive”:

in my pocket a glowing coal

I am trying to crush
into a name.

And finally, “Crossing”:

I light another silence in my head.

These lines constitute what she terms in “Book Burning” “ravishing sentences,” but herein lies the crux of this collection; how can a poet who can write such stellar endings, who has been awarded, as the jacket liner notes, a Guggenheim and two NEA fellowships, who publishes through W.W. Norton be content with a collection of poems which do not live up to the endings previously mentioned. Auden famously noted that poetry makes nothing happen, but in a collection of poems by an accomplished poet things should either happen or the ravishing sentences and lines should come in droves and not be relegated to the role of little beauties set to save the prosaic musings that precede them.

The German critic Georg Groddeck in his essay “Charakter and Typus” claims that Western literature after the 16th century became increasingly attentive to human reactions. And this is what Addonizio gives us repeatedly in this collection, be they to a poet she and a friend label “a poser” “after drinking too much Sancerre” (“Book Burning”) tothe deaths of November 11, 2004 which she chronicles along with the rain:

O everyone’s dead and the rain today is marvelous!
I drive to the gym, the streets are slick,
everyone’s using their wipers, people are walking
with their shoulders hunched, wearing hoods
or holding up umbrellas…

or in “The Little Dog Upstairs That Never Never Quits Barking”

has suddenly quit. And in the quiet
I wait for him to resume, imagining him
(for I have seen him—his tight white curls,
his anxious, mashed-in face)

staring into space, too sorrowful now
even to cry out, settling
with a sigh in the leopard armchair,
facing the wooden indifference of the door.
Poetry after all is a form of barking.
Yap, yap, yap…

“Yap, yap, yap” indeed. Lawrence Ferlinghetti once wrote a gem of a short essay entitled “Modern Poetry is Prose (but it is Saying Plenty).” Addonizio’s collection is consistently prosaic but comes up well short of saying plenty. Besides ending well, Addonizio can also succeed at playing well with received language as she does in “Verities”:

Into every life a little ax must fall.
Sticks and stones will break you,
and then the names of things will be changed.
but she can also fail in this regard as in “The First Line Is the Deepest”:
Into the valley of Halliburton rides the infantry—

Why does one month have to be the cruelest,
can’t they all be equally cruel? I have seen the best

gamers of my generation, joysticking their M1 tanks through
the sewage-filled streets. Whose

world this is I think I know.

That Addonizio can weave together her own versions of Longfellow, Eliot, Ginsberg and Frost in six lines is a sort of victory, but this sort of play is more adolescent than telling, more giggle than gravitas. When she writes in “Veritas” though that “into every life a little ax must fall,” the giggle and the gravitas arrive in tandem. The line is more than merely clever; after the initial imagistic and linguistic delights the weight of the image adheres. Such double edged images and lines are few in comparison to the ones that miss.

Addonizio in her earlier collections drew much deserved praise for being edgy and provocative, but this collection reads like that of a poet whose edgy aesthetic has been compromised by a newly comfortable bourgeois lifestyle spent driving to the gym, listening to neighbor’s dogs, sipping Sancerre, playing with inherited language, and recalling a bawdy past. Groddeck wrote of those poets and writers who focused almost exclusively on human reactions:

They write of what is out of the ordinary, they make their art from extreme mental states. This is of course understandable. Only a person with really sluggish blood could put up with the average interior state of the human being without yawning, and to make art out of it is impossible.

This is precisely the hazard of a poet whose aesthetic is chiefly confessional. If her life is not in some way extreme, be that extremity circumstantial, as in the case of poets who find themselves in the midst of a compelling historic moment, or psychological, as in the case of a poet such as Addonizio whose book jacket blurb describes her poems as “house parties with the doors thrown open, people holding bottles of tequila in their hands, saying “Come on in.’” As someone who read Addonizio’s earlier work with interest, such a description of that work seems apt, but now that she seems well-medicated, mentions of Xanax among other anti-depressives abound, comfortably ensconced in her success, and sipping white wine, the house party and tequila are no longer apparent, and what humane reader would wish the return of extreme states of mind for a poet they have previously admired? The problem is without that bottle of tequila, these poems are lacking in necessity, fire, passion, and song. While Addonizio earned her reputation and success through the quality of her earlier work, Lucifer at the Starlite throws into question whether she can succeed still without that former provocative edginess. The answer so far is clearly not, that is unless one is a reader with sluggish blood or a poet at ease with Xanax, a glass of Sancerre, and a cozy fire.

Purchase Lucifer at the Starlite

James Tolan is an Assistant Professor of English at the Borough of Manhattan Community College-City University of New York, where he co-chairs the Writing and Literature program.  His poetry has appeared in American Literary Review, Atlanta Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Fulcrum, Indiana Review, Margie and other journals as well as a number of anthologies, including The Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary Poetry. He lives in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn.