Femme Au Chapeau
- by Rachel Dacus
One of the things I've been observing recently is that poets no longer seem to be constrained by either strict adherence to form or pigeon-holing ("formalist"); instead, many new collections are emerging that I'd call "semi-formal," shuffling an equal measure of formal poetry and free verse, keeping the reader on her toes, as she moves along, engaged in either the narrative or the lyric imagery, and then finds herself caught up short, realizing, "Hey, that's really a sonnet (or a pantoum, etc.), and has to go back and read the poems one more time, paying more attention to form and how the poet worked in the formal elements. I think, in a semi-formal collection like this, that there is a greater element of surprise and the unexpected, than, say, in a whole collection of sonnets, where the repetition of form and meter sometimes lulls the reader into a stupor. There is a great deal of mixing it up in Dacus's book; for example, the title poem, "Femme au chapeau," a 21 line nonce (or "transgressive," to use Molly Peacock's term) sonnet is sandwiched between a 20 line Elizabethan-like sonnet done in two stanzas and the free verse "To A Smith-Corona." The reader had better be awake here. Form in this book is used as a framework, which Dacus fleshes out with poems that are emotionally engaging, rather than form as the object itself, which often produces poems that are technically masterful, but emotionally empty.
Besides form in the sense of stanza patterns, Dacus also deftly uses form in her sound devices, whether in poems that have strict rhyme schemes or in free verse. "Dad-Jazz" is a good example here; within the four abab cdc stanzas, you have end rhymes like "horn brays / Sidney Bechet's" and "razzmatazz / klezmer jazz," but you also have internal rhyme: "scumbles, a clarinet line tumbled," giving the effect of syncopation, very much in keeping with the subject of the poem. And then there is the scatty "fizz / jazz / razmatazz" occurring within three lines. Look at how she gets in some great music with words like "ochre, azure, madder" right after "scissor, glimmer, later." ("Copyrights"). How about "Rain Hula at Anini Beach," where she rhymes "hibiscus" with "kissed / us" (and gets in a nice enjambment, too)? "Femme au chapeau" contains some astonishing half rhymes, such as "cartooned as if / What's the Dif" and "Pavlov's reflex / psychedelic." Sometimes, muting the music brightens it.
The use of consonance in "Crossing Myself in Temple," "scrolls, spindles, mesmerize, does, choose," in the first stanza, acts rhythmically to foreshadow the last line, "oceans in rhythm." And there's the assonance in "Miniatures": "shuffle, cut, luck." "Grunion Run," with the apocopatedly rhyming title, contains some tidy internal consonance: "sickles, racket, bucket, flickers." I love the way these sounds roll around in the mouth. In "A Road Scholar," Dacus earns extra miles for repetition, using the word "pepper" first as a verb, then as an adjective describing trees, then a noun (the spice, black pepper), and finally as a metaphor, the "hot car seat," alluding to jalapeños, scotch bonnets.
There is also an exquisite figurative language throughout: "Keen as scissor points, first stars / pink the edge of day . . . ." ("Copyrights") "Lately I've been stapling the wind into pleats." ("Red Light Aria") Or this, from "Blood-Cycle Brooding":
One more unpeeling of the walls,
the way muscles unclasp
from what might have been
Once more, the shredding of a bed
that waited fruitless five times seven
years for an egg and dart
to decorate its aching lap.
Scraped squeaky clean, the blood-room
has birthed generative words.
The delicate use of language for menstruation/failed conception sets up a striking contrast to the heavy emotional weather of the subject, infertility. "Lady of Last Chances" also addresses this subject in a striking way:
Parking my useless womb in a pew
...our separate disappointment
bleeds together through covered skin
...and I toss our canceled
children into an unknown virgin's lap.
These are difficult poems, and there is not an ounce of self-pity in any of them.
"Letter to a Birth Mother" picks us this subject, infertility, then gives it a new twist, as it is addressed to a pregnant girl from the perspective of the adoptive mother. When the girl chooses someone else, the speaker writes about loss:
. . . It's a girl, you will write
in the letter you send telling us someone else
has claimed her, someone you already knew
The speaker goes on to talk about
Our girl [who] will grow anonymous and someday read
the letters, if you keep them. May come to know
herself both chosen and surrendered.
Other unusual and surprising subject choices are: the differences between men and women, as revealed in their choice of razors and bathroom accessories ("The Difference"), the unattainable/remote mother ("Piano Lessons," "Apple Pie Order," "Laparoscopy," "Beauty by a Sideboard"), the self-explanatory "Ode to My Purse," the olfactory genius of dogs ("Dog Sniffing"), the state fish of Hawai'i ("A Pot of Humuhumunukunukuapua'a"), manual typewriters (the hilarious "Ode to a Smith-Corona" which has to be explained by its equally funny end note), and her poems about paintings, "Portrait of a Lady with Red Flowers," "My Father's Self-Portrait from Art School," "Virgin as the Letter M," "Unknown Woman," "Femme au chapeau." Dacus embodies the best of ekphrastic work, which doesn't merely describe works of art, but responds to them, allows the paintings to take her someplace else, and brings us along with her.
Surprising in subject matter, surprising in diction and word choices, surprising in her use of form and formal elements, Rachel Dacus has found her rhythm and stride in this fine collection. Molly Peacock said in Poetry (July/August 2005) that "it's wrong to think of the sonnet as a 'container' or prison; instead it is a 'skeleton,' which allows something to live and move." Dacus's loose nonce sonnets not only live and move, they get up and boogie. And we, her readers, are out there on the dance floor with her; there is not a dull moment in any of these poems. Deeply moving, always surprising, these are poems you will want to return to, again and again.