Guinevere in Baltimore
Recasting Arthurian legend so that Camelot is a corporation located in contemporary Baltimore could be a dreadful conceit, a two-minute bit of failed sketch comedy. Put it in verse and the danger is even greater. But Shelley Puhak (who placed in the City Paper Poetry and Fiction Contest twice) avoids the potential pitfalls with her smart, sexy, and slyly devastating Anthony Hecht Prize-winning book Guinevere in Baltimore.
Since Eliot and Pound we have come to expect our poets be smart, erudite even, but hardly sexy. But Puhak's collection details the physical and emotional conditions of the love triangle involving Arthur, a beleaguered CEO; Lancelot, the company's top salesman; and Arthur's wife, Guinevere, in such a way-full of so many surprises and such vivid language-that it causes, as Matthew Arnold put it, the hair on the back of one's neck to stand on edge.
Take the final stanza of first poem, "On Having Sex, Grief-Stricken," which goes:
"And somehow-a hotel/ Easy-care earth-toned/bedding, claw-foot/ in the corner. We can't/ look at one another./ I straddle you, sobbing./ I'm stunned our bodies/ can still screw/ together the threads/ can catch: what has/ steeled in you winding/ up into my wooden."
One would be hard-pressed to guess that at this late date one could make the old shopworn phrase "screwing" seem somehow original again but, as Puhak shows, the details of threads catching and "what has steeled in you winding/ up into my wooden" are somehow able to make the oldest of activities strike us as fresh.
Or again, in "Guinevere, Supine," Puhak's queen dreams of love and Latin grammar. "We break up between second period/ and fourth declension. Here/ I ought to write something/ wise. Here I ought to recline, supine as the full infinitive: /to sleep or to dream. Dear Reader/ my tongue is in your maze. Keep/ your eyes closed while we're kissing. Don't look-my whiskered/ twitch, my furred heave, my/ pale underbelly."
As a Classics junkie, I might be the only one to find Latin grammar hot, but "whiskered twitch" and "furred heave" are both startling and arresting turns of phrase that capture the mystery of the other's body and bodily reactions.
Puhak's poems are possessed of an intelligence to rival that of Eliot, who wrote, as we all know, that "April is the cruellest month." Here is Puhak on October in a line just as memorable: "October, darling, you're impossible[.]" She goes on to explain the impossibility in this "Letter to an Old Flame." "How early you get dark. And who will/ measure the gap between these/ two animals curled against your chill?" Later in the poem she writes: "All I want: a warm brick for my bed,/ to be rid of the gap, that matchstick-/ width that separates desire and dread/ to draw hard enough to keep it all lit./ We always measure wrong. October/ what could you know of distance."
These are only a few of the charms of this book, also chock-full of bits of contemporary life, as in "Lancelot Advising Galahad at the Office Depot," or "Lancelot, After Being Caught Dowloading Porn," or yet again "Lady Elaine, Meeting Guinevere at the Employee Picnic," which contains the beautiful "He was post-atomic; I was pre-hipster./ Lance looked like a man love-sorrowed/ and book-sick, a man who needs/ a drink, that's all./ I had a fancy chalice, and he was awed."
Guinevere is also a decidedly post-financial-collapse collection, which perfectly sets the corporation's financial difficulties in line with the marital troubles between Arthur and Guinevere and the end of an era of legends and myths and heroes. We can understand the demise of the Round Table more clearly having seen Lehman's once-gallant knights fall and bring down an entire economic order with them.
But these interlocking monologues are not set in abstract space or prehistoric England. The local reader will delight in the references to Baltimore, as in "Guinevere, Meeting Lancelot at the Walters Art Gallery" or the exquisite "Confession for the Bromo Seltzer Tower."
One doesn't need to be from Baltimore, however, to enjoy the freshness of these poems anymore than one needs to be from Dublin to enjoy James Joyce. (Indeed, it was former Poet Laureate Charles Simic who chose the book as the winner of the prestigious Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize.) For it is in the perfectly allotted proportions of the sexy, the wry, the sharp, and sly, the economic, the local, the corporate, and the mythic that this book shines. Though the poems are ostensibly lyric, their mythical subject and lack of self-absorption propel them toward the realm of the epic-a modest, modern form of epic, closest, perhaps, to John Berryman's dream songs about Henry and Mr. Bones.
Puhak's previous book Stalin in Aruba used the Soviet dictator's propensity for proto-Photoshop (erasing his enemies from photographs) as a sort of model for her enjambed juxtapositions. Here, she elevates what was merely clever in the previous collection to something close to sublime. It is a book easy to fall in love with and one that makes one want to memorize dozens of its delicately fierce lines.
Shelley Puhak will read from Guinevere in Baltimore with Charles Simic on Nov. 18 at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. For more information, please visit folger.edu.