29 November 2006 | Vol. 6, No. 3
A Review of Kathleen Flenniken's Famous
University of Nebraska Press, 2006.
76 pages. $17.95.
Check Amazon.com or Powell's Books.
The third volume to emerge from the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry and the first collection of its author's work, Famous is an assured and refreshingly self-possessed volume of poems, a rich offering of plain but musical language and understated irony, with a single formal piece thrown in for spice—or perhaps just to show that Kathleen Flenniken can do a pantoum as ably as anyone. With such a title, one would expect fame to be the overriding theme of the fifty-one poems collected here, and although it is indeed present in flashes, like snapshots taken from quirky angles, Flenniken seems more concerned with the opposite of fame: daily life, domestic moments, the ordinary objects of ordinary lives, and moments of intense privacy. The poems alternately present witty extended metaphors à la Billy Collins, vignettes of quotidian life as the poet knows it, and an imaginative rendering of quotidian life as certain minor figures in poetry, literature, politics, and history may have known it.
The opening poem, "The League of Minor Characters," is a perfect example of the first genre mentioned above. Flenniken begins by listing all the people "the main character" has lost, and continues:
When his doctor calls with test results, most of us
decide to remain minor characters
like the quixotic neighbor growing
bonsai sequoias, or the waitress with thick
glasses and a passion for chess,
because the main character, in the thrall
of a relentless plot, can't help hurtling toward
the crumbling cliff edge. And who needs that?
Who indeed? And yet we are often forced into the main character's role, as is implied in a later poem, "The International House of Pancakes." The speaker considers stopping in at the restaurant for a late breakfast, to eke the morning out a bit longer. She is nervous for good reason:
I've got a reservation at the hospital next door
which I'm pretending is a Ramada,
that I'm just another jittery traveler
with overnight case and toothbrush.
I could pull in, add to this lump
in my stomach. It's a good place to go
if you're a stranger, alone, almost forty
and late to see the world. The menu unfolds
like a map and for a moment your trip
These poems are routinely surprising, filled with memorable imagery and delightful comparisons that will stay with the reader for a long time. Take the opening lines of "What I Learn Weeding":
A dandelion root can grow two feet long.
You don't forget unearthing one—shocking
as a donkey in an old French postcard.
Or these lines from "Sarah Chang plays violin":
As we drive home,
two cars cut and weave through the steady traffic.
Their tail lights careen. We gasp but they
cross untouched and bleed into the future.
Flenniken is even capable of writing about her own children in an engaging way, which is some achievement. For an example, see this moment from "Elisabeth Reads Poetry":
Atsa batta sorry,
and tosses the book in favor
of a red crayon, then
on to her dolly's baby blanket,
folding it like soft origami.
Flenniken's remarkably assured touch may owe something to her late discovery of the art: already in her thirties when she began to study and write poetry, it seems that she thereby had an invaluable opportunity to develop a strong sense of self and, one feels, to situate her sense of personal success firmly in something other than poetry.
The poems in the last genre mentioned above (those which involve some minor historical figure) include some of the most engaging pieces in the book. They often describe distant or fleeting contact with greatness: distant in a poem such as "Edna St. Vincent Millay's Husband," which shows the man pining after his famous wife (an ocean away in the arms of yet another lover), and fleeting in a poem such as "One Night"—a beautiful poem about an imagined sexual encounter between Shirley Jackson (herself a formidable figure) and Dylan Thomas at "another / drunken party":
one night in the middle of real life
she found Dylan Thomas. There,
in her dirty kitchen, looking for a glass.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
to the back porch to kiss
and nobody knows what else. But I think
the moon floated in and out of a cloud,
she passed him a secret with her lips
and became famous, finally, to herself.
Incidentally, this final line gives the only sense in which fame figures in this collection, a sense that seems best expressed by something Jonathan Lethem wrote in Harper's a couple years ago: "When you're a child, everything local is famous."
The primary weakness of Famous is the seemingly arbitrary division of the poems into three sections of sixteen, eighteen, and seventeen poems each, which have been given the respective headings "Minor Characters," "Minor Celebrities," and "Fame." As with the title of the collection as a whole, not to mention the flap copy, which together suggest a theme that proves to be largely absent, this division suggests a rough thematic grouping that I was completely unable to detect in the poems themselves. The most that I can say is that the more-accessible poems are concentrated in the front section and the less-accessible poems are concentrated in the back section. Although recognizable names do appear in the latter half of the book (as with Jackson, Thomas, and Millay above), the mere presence of half a dozen recognizable subjects, dropped here and there, does not amounts to a coherent theme. Nevertheless, this weakness seems to me a superficial defect in a collection that is consistently engaging and delightful.
It is a book best enjoyed in a quiet living room, after the kids have gone to bed, with the dog sleeping on your feet; either that or at the beach. Neither suggestion is a reproach.
Kathleen Flenniken's poems have appeared in Poetry, Iowa Review, Mid-American Review, Southern Review, and Prairie Schooner. Coeditor and president of Floating Bridge Press, a publisher of Washington State poets, Flenniken has taught poetry through Writers in the Schools and other arts agencies.
About the author:
Jeremy Hatch reviews books for Gambara, and his work has most recently appeared in the literary webzine elimae. He lives in San Francisco with his wife and two cats, and he is working on a novel. He recently launched a blog about the writing life, Ynpossybull!.