The Other World, Lucy Biederman, Dancing Girl Press, 2012.
Lucy Biederman’s The Other World is crammed with voices. It’s an overstuffed suitcase. It’s a wide-open field with some very noisy zephyrs. The Other World is a chapbook comprised of two long poems written in, what Octavio Paz would call, “another time that is now” and written about a world we barely know and also know too well. The central narrative is intensely archetypal: a woman loves a cowboy and the cowboy leaves her. Both characters are lonely in the end, but only the cowboy chooses his loneliness.
The people we meet, the desperate woman, the lonesome cowboy, and some contemporary Americans feeling quite indifferent, who “just keep drinking,” are the characters of this bloated, waterlogged “other world.” The other world is so familiar— the circles of suburbia, “outlying loops of house & mall” cycling around us—but it is completely elsewhere as well. It’s open and steeped in tumbleweed, dust, and isolation. By the end of this chapbook, cowboys morph into truck drivers, their horses the semis, and mythic Texas becomes suburban northern Virginia.
In the beginning, the past is not the past, to paraphrase Faulkner. A telephone booth exists, even if it’s not being used:
What could rectify the lack
Of telephone booths you ever
Pulled over for
To call me back?
The book is a dream and the just waking. As dreams seem to explore what is real, Biederman does as well. The real, if we can find it, is set against memory or stereotype (and these two most certainly blur together). Sometimes stereotypes seems so emotionally real, such as when the speaker, at the end of the first poem, “The Other World” says,
…My apron hanging low
Dragging through the sleet & rain—
O at the bottom of my entire self—
Flung loose like a string of beads—
Fucking, pinned against the wall—
Going down the road feeling bad—
“I have been her kind,” Anne Sexton (and many readers) would sing out. An echo comes through to express that we aren’t as powerful as we think we are, that the world isn’t enough. This is evidenced when the speaker says of the cowboy, “…you are not going out, not for any of the not / Nearly enough you’ve ever found out there, not for the world.” This beautiful language play is also a hallmark of Biederman’s work.
As in Shakespeare, the lushness of this chapbook does not necessarily stem from the narrative arc(s) it repurposes. The story is one we’ve heard before, although it’s set on its ear, but the language is what flashes. We hear a bit of Louise Glück in the second stanza of the first piece, “The Other World”:
If this was the other world
He says on the phone
In the wavy space around him
Readers will also detect a bit of John Ashbery later in the same piece, “Gray swaths / Swipe weakly into high white.” This comes right alongside the tones of pop-country music:
He loves to see the towns a-passin’ by
He sees the towns a-passin’ by
The towns are a-passin’ by
We can even envision Dali’s landscapes in lines like, “Dust storm. The sun is small as the head of a nail,” and listen to Sexton again echoing, “I have done my hitch” in the parts that reflect a woman who’s been left in the dust (literally). However, it’s Biederman who conducts the chorus until these voices, in unison, reach the golden tone that marks our entrance into The Other World.
The author calls on the fragments of beauty to light this world up again: “Tonight—that grass, a mountain, o lit smack / Of sky. I think I want to hear it sing” is so reminiscent of Ashbery’s “To Redouté” in his arresting lyrical ending: “It grieves for what it gives: / Tears that streak the dusty firmament.” Like Ashbery, Biederman shows off her skill for overthrowing linguistic expectations and then, in the same breath, flashes the purest of lyric ability—the type of language that forces a reader rigid with awe. In essence, there is hot life to be found, and we must find it, the speaker says. This is evident in lines like, “…He does as he pleases, / Watches the nation’s drag races rage / Wild behind the marquees,” from the second poem in the collection, “The Other Side.”
The poetics of the book are an extension of these voices, which in turn become the sounds of The Other World. These sounds are so neatly braided throughout the collection and superbly express the super-reality of the landscape. Refrains such as “I’d love to love a cowboy,” “Bartender, what time is it?” and “Sending the silence away” mark tracks in the landscape and show us how far we’ve come, or maybe just how fast we’ve raced back to our beginnings. The refrains offer up “ghost rhymes,” matching up pages later with other lines in the long poems. “I heard it sing” is rhymed with “the real tin thing,” and “just keep drinking” over a 10 page span.
Even though the physical environment has changed by the end of Biederman’s book, the missing pieces of the speaker herself haven’t magically filled in. In the beginning she says, “I crawl on top of him & say goodbye all night long” and in the end, she’s still parting with the cowboy, or with the dream:
Buses splash through the disordered morning like ships in songs. Throat,
Eye & knucklebone, split ends to
Nose, we point at all the whatever we don’t behold.
Blue, here is a shell for you.
Regret that this or anything will ever be
Over & done, you know? At my ear it plays a
Whoosh industrial, a rush of lack.
Nothing’s singing. You say you’re a devil, but you won’t even clap.
The profound sense of disappointment, echoed in Sexton’s lines from “The Truth the Dead Know” sampled above, lives through the last page. The speaker says of the cowboy at the beginning of “The Other World,” “O at the bottom of his entire self, / a jumble of jagged lines,” and at the end of the poem says of herself, “O at the bottom of my entire self— / Flung loose like a string of beads—…” In language, these characters appear bottomless. Due to the fact that they are archetypes, Beiderman has the luxury of making them so. Through Biederman’s sonic mastery and inventive retelling of the story, we, as readers, can easily find our place in it, and in The Other World’s all-too human, yet beautifully rendered, loneliness.
Sandra Marchetti currently teaches writing and literature at Elmhurst College outside of her native Chicago. She completed her MFA in Poetry at George Mason University in 2010. Sandra was named the winner of the Midwest Writing Center’s 2011 Mississippi Valley Chapbook Contest for her volume, The Canopy. She was also a finalist in Gulf Coast’s 2011 Poetry Prize and Phoebe’s 2009 Greg Grummer Poetry Contest. Sandy’s poems have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Ohio State’s The Journal, Phoebe, Spiral Orb, CURA, and Gargoyle, among others. She is an assistant poetry editor at Fifth Wednesday Journal and publishes poetry reviews for PIF Magazine. You can also find her at sandrapoetry.net.