Book Review: Reckless Lovely by Martha Silano
Poems by Martha Silano
Saturnalia Books, March 2014
Reviewed by Maggie Trapp
There is an audible pulse to Martha Silano’s new collection, Reckless Lovely. These lines have an unmistakable rhythm that begs to be voiced, and it is this reaching out beyond the page, this connection between the poet and the reader, that makes this book so pleasurable.
Silano’s sardonic lyric I ranges over the eye’s rods and cones, breasts (“our dangling darlings”) being squished during a mammogram, azaleas and camellias, galactic halos, the Mona Lisa, humor theory, artichokes, and Nadia Comaneci, among other themes and topics. These poems are cerebral without being pedantic. Silano offers up her capacious intellect almost flippantly. In “Big Bang” she shares a recipe for our universe, the whole concoction beginning
with a dash of giant impact, a sprinkling
of moonlets, pinch of heavy bombardment.
Sift in crusty iron sulfide, fricasseed stromatolites,
one level teaspoon cyanobacteria.
There is a library’s worth of learning in these lines, but they read as wry and casual, their arcane knowledge and intricate references seemingly tossed off.
These poems are tonics, they’re odes and histories, lists and catalogs, investigations and ruminations, love letters and songs of mourning. Silano mixes levity with learning in “Ode to Artichokes”:
O long and thick-stemmed chubby pinecones pyramid-stacked,
you’re a posse of impossibly violet-tinged ghosts. Like instruments
of torture, some dark-aged throttling device—verdant, crustaceous—
menacing, growth-stunting knapweed, horse-poisoning
star thistle, to the God damn can’t go barefoot in my own backyard.
Silano plays with form. The right margin of her poem on mammograms, “Breast Imaging’s,” for instance, aligns to create the silhouette of a woman’s breast, holding forth all perky in precisely rendered breast-traced couplets. “Summons and Petition for Name Change” is a densely packed single stanza that is one long alphabetized catalog of identities and shifting shapes that the speaker appears to relish trying on and taking off. “Under the Sun” is a verbal pas de deux in two staggered columns of innuendo that the reader is invited to piece together in a sort of call and response.
Silano engages in layered wordplay, clearly relishing both the sound and the sense of the language: “(tambourines clashing, goat guts bleating // for mercy, dripping blood bedabbled …),” in “What Falls from Trucks, from the Lips of Saviors,” or,
goddess, translucent muse, she lofts
a gauzy lug wrench toward the shadowy
freeway, where the alphabet—each of its
limpid clauses, each hyaline verb—
has once again broken down, needs a lift
in “The Poet Is the Priest of the Invisible.” It’s as if Silano has taken a page from her own lively book of poetry prompts, The Daily Poet, which encourages writers to seriously play with words every day.
The voice in these poems is associative and nimble, the verse alive with an incantatory rhythm. The play in these lines is alive; you can hear the music in each word. The tone manages to be at once ironic and awed. This collection’s characteristic copia is evidenced in “If You Could Be Anybody, Who Would You Be?” This poem bores into words and ideas, yet its earnest, clever feel is tempered with a comforting, wishful wistfulness. The speaker digs and delves into all manner of worldly wonders and ephemera, yet rather than coming across as starchy or officious, this voice mixes its smarts with an appealing yearning. When asked who she would be if she could be anyone, the poem’s speaker launches into mini dissertations on Hatshepsut and Thomas Edison, Tanya Harding and Olga Korbut, until finally, after all is said and done, coming round to the idea that she really just most wants to be herself, to stay in her own familiar skin:
…I’ve decided, she said, and that’s when she gave him
that impossibly loose-lipped flower, white destined to be dirty brown, to flop on the ground
for the girls to load their buckets for petal soup, cuz who’d give a camellia less
than a ten, who’d reject a blossom, though why hadn’t she answered nobody
but nobody else, because really she loved her own aorta, her own prismatic ulnas,
was most content in her own cage, with the twenty-six bones of her foot.
It’s a moving poem, mixing wordplay and longing in the way so many of the poems in this collection do. We can appreciate the prosody of the lines, and beyond the craftedness we can also connect to the vulnerability, both here and throughout this collection.
Silano has a gift for making the made feel extemporaneous, and these learned, layered poems manage to surprise us and remind us of the many things in our world that are at once terrifying and gorgeous.
Maggie Trapp teaches literature online for UC Berkeley, and she regularly writes book reviews for various publications.