Friday, August 31, 2007



The Second Child by Deborah Garrison
(Random House, New York, 2007)

Deborah Garrison is proof that the wool can still be pulled over the public's eye in regard to poetry. Evidently poems these days do not have to be good. As with other genres, their writers just have to be well-connected and their work as fluffy as, well, Fluff.

The first thing that was disturbing about The Second Child is that it took me about 20 minutes to read the entire book, as compared with the 20 minutes that it takes me to read ONE Robert Duncan poem. The poems are lacking in any linguistic complexity. Garrison confessed on NPR that she writes her poems on the bus, and it shows. Interestingly, Garrison does have a grasp of some ideas that are fodder for good poetry (the anxiety and intense love involved in having children or the realization that every moment is not predictable). However, Garrison doesn't have the ability (or the desire, perhaps) to speak in the language of a mature poet. Instead of writing poetry, she merely "talks" to us as if we were girlfriends sitting in a coffee shop.

Her use of rhyme scheme gives this reader a sense of dizziness. Some rhymes she employs in "Goodbye, New York" are:

You were the big fat city we called hometown
You were the lyrics I sang but never wrote down

You were the lively graves by the highway in Queens
the bodega where I bought black beans

Surely, Frank O'Hara is doing a summersault in his grave! Later, in "September Poem," the poet writes,

Now can I say
On that blackest day.

And in "Bedtime Story"

Number Two happy at the tit
in the nursery while First one has bit

These rhymes are so bad that this reader thinks surely they must be ironic and kitschy. But, "September Poem" is about 9/11, so that erases any possibility of a purposeful kitschy rhyme. No, they are just plain wrong. Also, words like "tit" used in a poem are, to this picky reader, like nails on a chalkboard. The rhymes and "tit" are just the beginning of what I find to be a long list of poetically sophomoric moves: using a title for a first line ("A Piece of Paper"), using cliches non-ironically, claiming to be an atheist (oh, how trendy!), but Jewish enough to insist on a bris, painfully obvious metaphors, and a sex poem that sounds like it was generated in a 10th grade creative writing class (with my hand/to keep you awake

I know how difficult it is to be a working mother, but I just can't drudge up much sympathy for the mother in "Sestina for the Working Mother." This woman who "chooses" to work, has a six figure income, and a full-time nanny and housekeeper. Garrison's living conditions were described in the New York Times in probably the only portrait of a living poet they ever published. I'd like to see a sestina by a single mother in Atlanta working ten hours a day at Walmart.

As a poet and thinker, I expect more from the genre and hope others do too. There is certainly a place for beach reading: all the Shopaholic, Nanny Diary stuff. But, I can't put my mind around unfairness that the mainstream media buys into this kind of poetry -- Garrison somehow landed good press from Elle, the Times Book Review, Interview, and Newsweek -- no doubt from reviewers who think Ezra Pound is a shoe designer. Interestingly, Garrison has no kudos from actual poets.

It's not like me to pick on poetry. My general stance on reviewing books is to focus on the positive. But, I truly see Garrison's success as a slap in the face. So many poets who write wonderful work will never be in the New Yorker (NATHANIEL TARN!) where SEVEN of these poems appeared. "The Second Child" focuses on poems about motherhood. These poems have the possiblitity of so many more readers than the great works of mother-poets such as Alicia Ostricker, Rachel Zucker, and Alice Notley (to name a few). For this reviewer's money, the New York Times would have been better off reviewing Catherine Wagner's and Rebecca Wolff's seminal anthology Not For Mother's Only.

One thing I do admire about Garrison is that she is aware of her limitations. She confesses that she would never be able to write as well as the poets she edits at Knopf. But, this makes me suspicious. If she really believes this, why didn't she forsake one of her seven publications in the New Yorker to make room for another, perhaps "better" poet. Or at least one who has not worked there. I was taken to task a number of months back for criticizing Garrison for using her connections to get were she is. It was pointed out that we ALL use our connections. But, I wanted to believe that no matter what connections a poet has the cream must rise to the surface. Now, I'm not so sure.


Jennifer Bartlett's book, Derivative of the Moving Image, is available for pre-order from the University of New Mexico Press. She maintains a blog at


At 12:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gots to say, it's "reviews" like this that give the Internets a bad name. I, too, think Garrison's book is the pure product of position, networking, and some really good prescription drugs, but what in God's name does "claiming to be an aesthetic" mean? Does the reviewer mean "aesthete" or "ascetic"? It's embarrassing. As well, Zucker and Greenberg did not edit Not For Mothers Only. Just some simple fact-checking would do wonders for this piece. Beyond that, while the New Yorker is the last place I'd look for anything interesting about poetry, they have done profiles of a few living poets: Ashbery, Jorie Graham, Les Murray. Not many, but the hyperbole that swims through this writing undermines anything of value that this reader, at least, tried in vain to find. There's a lot of lethargic conflation here; I don't have the energy to continue, but please, just do some simple fact-checking. Beyond that, the best I can say about this so-called review is that the excerpts are truly well chosen, and stink.

At 7:13 AM, Blogger EILEEN said...

The reference to Not For Mothers Only has been corrected (thanks for raising it) to reflect the correct editors' names. (I was going to harangue the fact-checking department but had to pull up short when I realized, it din't exist....not an excuse, mind you, just a self-pitying moue on moi part.)

That this piece was published in the internet allows me to correct the piece, rather than later issuing a Correction published separately from the piece itself (which is often the wont of print journals).

I have been as mystified by criticism in print as I have been by criticism in the internet.


At 3:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great review, Jennifer. Garrison's poetry is, with perhaps only one or two exceptions, jaw-droppingly atrocious... I felt cheated and dirty just perusing this slim collection of trite, especially after I was led to believe that she was the next great hope for 'motherhood poetry'.


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