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Book Review Tony Leuzzi

The Blue Dress
Townsend, Alison
White Pine Press ($14.95 Paperback)

As the sixth installment in the Marie Alexander Poetry Series, Alison Townsend's second full-length poetry collection, The Blue Dress, is a quietly ambitious collection of verse and prose that, through a series of declarative gestures, sculpts the distant and not-so-distant past into a delicate though decidedly unsentimental shape. One of Townsend's strengths as a storyteller –– and she is primarily telling stories here –– is her ability to dramatize the depths of honest feeling while entirely avoiding sentimental or melodramatic methods of manipulation. To that end, the poems in The Blue Dress demonstrate her unwavering dedication to the vast field of ordinary moments that constitute the emotional landscape of our lives. And while the book is not always successful as poetry, it does explore issues regarding family and the day-to-day ennui that we all face in ways that are enriching and insightful.

The book is organized into three sections, where prose and verse are inextricably linked to a slowly-evolving story: the speaker's loss of her mother while still in the uncertain years of childhood; the reorganization of the family unit upon her father's second marriage; her suddenly estranged status as "other" among step brothers; and –– later in life –– the bittersweet romance with, then marriage to, and subsequent divorce from, her husband. Interspersed with these elegantly candid poems are a number of meditations on moments of perception in nature that often serve as thematic bridges between two seemingly disconnected statements.

Townsend's writing is distinguished by precise observation and a remarkably honest and direct voice. Most of the verse, however, could just as easily have been formatted in prose. Despite considerable attention to line endings –– presumably for matters of breath? –– few of line breaks in any of the poems enhance the text. A notable exception is the title poem of the book's first section, "Calf Season." Here, the verse is as cadenced and distinguished as some of Townsend's mentors:

Halfway between Mineral Point and Platteville
I see her standing alone in a field, all
that breaks the border between prairie and sky.

These shapely lines might have been written by Jane Hirschfield, who contributes a powerful endorsement of Townsend's work on the back of the book's jacket. That said, the voice in Townsend's prose poems demonstrate more authority. Take "Lantern," a powerful story about familial struggles and the endless compromises that one must endure to survive them:

It was the year my father kicked my brother out of the house because my stepmother had goaded him until he broke––calling him useless and good-for-nothing until he snatched up a kitchen knife and held it to her throat. It was the winter he lived in the cottage in the woods, nothing but an old Boy Scout sleeping bag and an electric space heater to keep him warm.

This opening passage relates the conflict concisely, though not dispassionately. The reiterated pronoun "my" signals the narrator's understanding of loyalty and her father's temporary slippage from that which the voice feels should have been an unbreakable bond between father and biological son, especially in light of the wicked stepmother's behavior. The hindsight of years makes such clarity possible. In that moment, however, her father's loyalties are confused, and the brother's violence is explained in sympathetic terms. Such violence is further contrasted with his vulnerability. Later in the same poem, he uses what tools he can find to make a lantern, and presents his creation as a gift to the stepmother, a peace offering that allows him to re-enter the house on her terms. It's a touching, brutal story, but one that doesn't succumb to melodrama. Townsend's expert narrative skills ensure that the telling is stripped of all but careful, unsparing detail.

The Blue Dress is filled with such successes. However, these prose narratives do not –– to my way of thinking –– read like poems. The aforementioned clarity of observation and honest narration make for wonderful moments of creative non fiction; and whether or not the stories in this book are true, they read more like autobiographical renderings than moments of instinctive perception discovered through genuine lyrical utterance. Most of the pieces –– verse or prose –– function on a primarily literal level, and most of the epiphanies are either telegraphed or forced. Consider the teenage angst portrayed in the following passage of "Radio Love Poem":

It wasn't even sound I craved, but protection against silence, the quiet places in my own head the ones I feared most because they named me as what I was, a lost station in search of an airway…

And the childhood trauma dramatized in "With Monsters, 1964":

I was letting my imagination run wild––girl who couldn't control herself, and wouldn't keep quiet about it––the whole family's wildness trapped inside my body, like an itch no one but me could scratch, as the monsters came for me again and again, the long red welts I raised on my arms and legs the only sign they'd been there.

To cite a workshop cliché, Townsend's poems tell more than they show. Moreover, a persistent and anxious preoccupation with accurate memory prevails: the word "real" appears in more than half of the prose pieces; and the phrase "I remember" is a common rhetorical construction. Such tendencies only reinforce the poems' literal qualities, rendering them stylistically near-equivalent to journal excerpts.

Naturally, objections could be raised against such criticism, especially since the basis of judgment rests on a subjective definition of what a poem should do. But whatever the case, there is much to like in The Blue Dress. Townsend's accessible yet sophisticated approach to metaphor enriches these texts considerably: natural landscapes are often described in terms of the human body; while in other poems physical objects are introduced and then likened to the psychological landscape of the persona observing them. But perhaps most intriguingly, Townsend's unromanticized attention to the domestic squalor of daily life is an important contribution to the literature of the contemporary American family.