Jan/Feb 2007  •   Reviews & Interviews

Black Box

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

Black Box.
Erin Belieu.
Copper Canyon Press (2006) 80 pp.
ISBN 1-55659-251-5.

When the Wave Books Poetry Tour began on September 5, 2006, Matthew Zapruder was doing the hip blogging:

I'm super-beat right now. I gave my first reading from my new book, The Pajamaist, to a very cool crowd at the Bumbershoot Festival, with Erin Belieu, Arthur Sze, and Eileen Myles, all of whom were totally amazing in their own ways.

A little later, in the same post, he provides a description of the accommodations:

The bus by the way says POETRY BUS in big red letters on the side. It's packed with books, camping gear, food, blankets, audio visual equipment, pillows, five typewriters, poets.

The posts of Zapruder and others, during the 53 days of the tour, appear at the PoetryFoundation.org site.

Erin Belieu blogs days three through five at the Poetry Foundation "Journals" section weblog dedicated to the tour. Her first words capture her early experience quite well, one suspects:

Sorry to have missed yesterday—our beloved bus is a bit touchy (as in it shakes like it has the DT's with a broken toilet and a generally cranky attitude). She's a good old girl, but one by one our connections to the electronic world have died along the way. No cell phones. No computers. It's pathetic that I feel like some inalienable right has been taken from me... my goal for today is to work on mustering a more appropriately pioneer attitude—

Her brief appearance in the blog may itself be expressive but it is difficult to draw conclusions from lack of evidence. She is one of dozens of intrepid (tee-hee) poets to take part in the ride and more poets still who will meet the bus and participate in the readings.

Belieu had already prepared her book, Black Box, for the press, as we learn from her February 13, 2006, entry in her personal blog at the Poetry Foundation:

I have a new book coming and have spent the last few weeks (when not making peanut butter sandwiches for my 5-year-old Jude or teaching my classes) working with my press on the cover—they're great about allowing the author input—so now I'm trying to find an image. My friend Adam who does graphic design was kind enough to put together some mock-ups for the press to look at. The book's called Black Box—as in airplanes, but feel free to fill in your own smutty joke here—and Adam came up with this great image he got from some archival erotica site—it's a picture of a woman circa turn of the 19th century—she's naked except for the black veil over her face, sitting on a chair facing the camera with her legs spread. The thing that makes the image arresting is what you can see of her face. She's not a pretty woman—very ordinary, a little lumpy—but her expression is a fierce mixture of grief and contempt—a mind at war with the object of the body—

Blogging, however, leads to stronger drugs. A mere few months later we find Belieu aboard the Poetry Bus on a wireless jag.

Clearly, the Brave New World offers some remarkable and expansive opportunities to its poets. The bus tour may be right out of the 60s—the Stones on tour with all the period touches except the Stones—but that, too, is part of the 21st century experience. And we all can follow it from the comfort of our own living rooms, replete with the most sincere poet-next-door text a blogger can muster and (at the Poetry Bus.com blog) MP3 audio and QuickTime video clips into the bargain. I personally found browsing the blogs (especially PoetryBus.com) an unusually entertaining experience.

Her fellow poets will be interested, no doubt, to learn that "someone on the bus" turns Belieu on to beta blockers for her stage fright:

Turns out beta blockers are what lots of musicians take to deal with stage fright. So she gave me a couple from her personal stash and I tell you, if you're prone to panic attacks, this stuff is life changing.

Yes, we live in a remarkable time. Everybody is "totally amazing." Nobody "left it in the locker room."

It took until Day 15, and a difficult experience at the Chicago slam reading, for one of the bloggers not to be able to resist posting an eye-catching passive-aggressive rant:

So I called Marc Smith in Chicago.

"A poetry bus," Marc said on the phone to me, "That's real interesting, you know, but you're not the first people to think of this. A poetry bus. Like Ken Kesey did, or like Gary Glazner did, right?"

"Sure," I said.

"Well, that might work real nice to have you come to the slam, but let me tell you something. I started this thing, this poetry slam thing a long time ago. And you people, you always come in to my world and you just shit on my face."

He had, apparently, had bad experiences with poets he deemed academic or establishment coming into his world and disrespecting what he has done with poetry, which is, whether you like it or not, remarkable.

"We won't shit on your face," I told him.

"I won't do it, you know, I won't have any of you people come in here and shit on my face and shit on the face of what I do," he said.

It seems that there is a poet in Chicago who does not want to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony. The Poetry Bus folks were surprised to learn that they were going to read with a jazz band for backup:

That said, I think Marc may have tried to shit on our face a little through a surprise switch of plans from a fairly straight ahead reading with an open mic prelude, to an almost burlesque show atmosphere with Marc as the ringleader, a jazz band backing up the poets, and the "Speakeasy Ensemble" as a kind of Greek Chorus throughout up until a final "Chicago vs. Bus Slam."

Nonetheless, all the bus poets "performed admirably." A considerable number were "awesome."

On day 36, Gillian Conoley had another strangely divergent (but all too recognizable) experience while taking a Greyhound bus to meet the Poetry Bus:

It's 3:00 PM and I just got to Tuscaloosa. Got into Birmingham around 10:00 and slept well and got up just in time to catch the only bus to Tuscaloosa—a Greyhound. Birmingham bus station was slimy scene—like being in a Denis Johnson novel. I walked in and everyone in the place stared—then got my ticket and went to vending machines as had not had anything to eat or drink, was in rush to get to bus station. Then immediately accosted by a guy with a long story about his 7-year-old son who had thrown up on the last bus and he called his wife and she said get him something to eat, he's diabetic, and could I spare a few dollars, so I gave him the two dollars in my hand and then he said well we could share the sandwich if you want, but it costs $5 so I gave him $5. And of course there's no son, no wife, just a crazy guy who then came back to me 10 minutes later saying I don't mean to startle you but this bus station cafe is really expensive and I told him I didn't have any more money.

Still, there would appear not only to have been no problems between the poets, but virtually every reading, every action, by every one of the poets is described with glowing superlatives. Everyone was "totally amazing in their own way," or "extraordinarily generous."

Perhaps this is why Erin Belieu's Black Box seems somehow refreshing. At her best, this poet, freed for 80 pages from the office and the Poetry Bus, displays a cynical clarity:

My dear, even the worst despot in his leopard-skin fez

will tell you: the truth doesn't win, but it makes an appearance,
though it's a foreign cavalry famous for bad timing and

half-assed horsemanship...

Where trenchant observation trumps stridency, in this volume, readers are treated to the highly problematical world that they are sure to recognize as their own.

"In Ecstasy" is a fine piece of work somehow filled with all of the psychological cross-traffic associated with becoming a bride of Christ. The football coach Bill Parcells undergoes an amusing reincarnation in "I Heart Your Dog's Head" while her own parents are amusing enough in their present incarnation:

my parents in 1971, drunk as
Australian parrots in a bottlebush, screeching
WE'RE #1, WE'RE #1!

"Below Zero" touches on the less-than-zero lifestyle, knows what to say and what to leave to the imagination. There are other poems almost as successful as these.

But there is plenty that is strident. Worse, the mistake of thinking that typography can prop up a flagging text is indulged. The centerpiece of the volume, the poem "In the Red Dress I Wear to Your Funeral," 19 pages long by virtue of double-spacing, begins Section 2 as follows:

I am undead and sulfurous. I stink like a tornado.
I lift my scarlet tail above your grave
And let the idiot villagers take me
In torchlight
One by one by one...

This by way of revenge upon the ex, it would seem. Undoubtedly, it set him foaming at the mouth.

Of course, Sylvia Plath did some interesting things with villagers. It is difficult to believe that these lines are not an attempt to write a variation of Plath's "The Bee Meeting":

Who are these people at the bridge to meet me? They are the villagers—
The rector, the midwife, the sexton, the agent for bees.
In my sleeveless summery dress I have no protection...

I am nude as a chicken neck, does nobody love me?

in the key of "Daddy" (as it were):

And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.

But there is the intention of correcting Sylvia's ambivalence, her outmoded femininity:

Get down on your knees
and cross yourself all you want:
all systems are closed systems, dead man.

Interestingly, Belieu fumes openly and in some detail about the other women in the ex's life. Perhaps this too is meant to be an act of boldness. At the very least it is real.

Of course, Sylvia ranged from borderline-psychotic to psychotic when she wrote the poems which now astonish us. She wasn't simply furious at a now-dead ex-husband. She had spent her life, since eight years of age, trying to make her way back to a father who had abandoned her to face her mother alone; a father who, she tells us in "Electra on Azalea Path," she felt had been killed by her mother, Clytemnestra:

I borrow the stilts of an old tragedy...

My mother dreamed you face down in the sea.

She claims in "Lady Lazarus" to have attempted suicide one more time than we have evidence for, at about ten years of age; some two years after her father died: long enough, it seems, to grow desperate at a controlling, perfectionist mother. Again, "Electra on Azalea Path" [Aurelia Plath] provides the clues in a language meaningfully close to the defensive word-salad displayed by many psychotics:

The day your slack sail drank my sister's breath...

Sylvia had no sister but she had her previous dead-self: more sister than sister. She died from Iphigeneia, dutiful daughter sacrificed to fill her father's sails, into Electra: the daughter who wishes to revenge her father's death at her mother's hand.

Early in their marriage, Sylvia spoke of her relation to Ted Hughes as that of a god and goddess. Ted as husband/god (or Colossus)/Daddy was bound to fail and the failure was bound to unleash her deepest, most searing conflicts, her death-myth. Her mythologizing of their relationship belied enormously powerful needs that could not be fulfilled in any normal fashion. Everything was always on the line.

Sylvia Plath rose periodically from the dead. She was "Lady Lazarus." When she rose she felt she could eat men like air. She did/was these things because, between periods when she was able sufficiently to satisfy her internalized demands for perfection, she was desperately fending off madness and death. Without this desperation she would likely have been a talented minor poet, no more.

For these reasons and more, Sylvia Plath is proving to be an impossibly demanding feminist muse. Erin Belieu is not "undead and sulfurous" although she is indecorously angry. Repeating the phrase "Dead man!" provides the reader with no particular insight, and is hardly shocking in today's shock-per-second world. Falling back upon typography suggests to the reader that the poet knows as much on some level. She is normally angry (which is certainly angry enough) at an ex who treated her shoddily. It's sufficient reason for a poem but not for a vulnerable-feminine-psychotic-rage-flame-haired-bitch-goddess poem. Where it remains normally angry it succeeds, at times, quite well.

The poem has its moments. It is refreshing to read a poem—a volume—in which everyone is not "totally amazing in their own way." There are some adroit touches.

This is not to suggest that the next Poetry Bus (or MFA office suite) should cast off courtesy, or even fear, for the periodic honesty of the spit-fight. The world of poetry is a networking experience as much as anything. Most poets on the bus hope to make their livings as teachers, of course, and by grants and awards; it is quite understandable, not knowing who will be in a position to provide their needs in these ways in the future, that they engage in serial superlation.

Oh, did I mention that Erin Belieu's Black Box is a classic of the language?


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