86 pages/ $15.95
Anne Champion’s first book, Reluctant Mistress (Gold Wake Press, 2013), is a lovely accomplishment of enveloping beauty. This poetry collection, which centers on love and relationships (and infidelity, in peculiar), displays a timelessness in image and tone. While reading this sophisticated, yet earthy collection, there were moments where I wondered if I were reading an anthology of ancient love poems by Catullus or Sappho because of her poems’ pure, undiluted images. This is not a criticism; purity and fineness and an authenticity of spirit are all too rare in a cynical, postmodern landscape. This is certainly not to say that this book is not justifiably modern. Rather, it is because Champion lets each poem so fully be itself, that they work so thoroughly across history.
The first half of Reluctant Mistress parallels the more sugarficial, glycerined aspects of romance. And while it occasionally makes gestures towards apparent sentimentality, (the repetitiveness of “Villanelle for Past Lovers” or the weddingscape of “Blessing” are almost problematic), their stunted happiness is intentional—part of the crux of this book is how artificial these feelings are and can be: in the “The Great Show,” she writes, “These awkward, fumbling puppet limbs \ enjoyed the lead role in that old, artificial \ tale of love.” It is almost impossible not to write of love this way—especially when writing about your past as a present which does not now exist in the world outside the perfect reality of the poem you have created for it. In “Dabbling in the Occult,” she writes:
“ When Amanda’s crush finally pressed her
up against the window inside the school bus,
jostling his tongue with hers the whole ride home,
we thought it must be our potions that did it,
not realizing yet that boys take their power;
they don’t need charms to manifest it.”
A little bit later, she further compounds this leitmotif, stating more directly in “Flesh Perception” that, “I figured that anything we found beautiful / we manipulated into being, which made life / all too logical and sad.”
After the title piece, “Reluctant Mistress,” there is a shift in tone from this sense of complacency—to the inevitable, Cassandra-like doom of an increasingly failed romance. At turns both funny and sad, these complex morsels are a sensual, if despairing, experience. It is always more fun to write about bad experiences than good, and nearly every poem in the second half of the book is in high territory—is a heavyweight—incredibly sensitive and deft. Dense, unadulterated, wonderful poems. “Sitting on the Porch at T 5 A. M.,” my favorite of the collection, with oldschool lines like “I am the only one that hears [the moon] / contemptuously wail tonight,” evokes Matthew Arnold’s lyric sensibility and sense of tragedy:
“Can you believe these stars?
By the time their light reaches you, they’re dead.
The dead should not be able to touch us
with such forcefulness.
It’s too much.”
But Champion’s clean lines and untroubled, visual metaphors mask what is most problematic to them: this is a language that seeks clarity which the romance is unable to provide—a messy affair is impossible to see cleanly through. And while her intonations and impulses stay enjoyably muddled, the clean, untroubled diction compacts them into believable vistas. It is always simplicity that is hardest to write. In many ways, these poems are the keepsakes or stars that—like Schrödinger’s cat—are simultaneously both dead and alive: “Now you exist \ like flesh that is absent from me, \ tiny tumors scooped out, small oval grooves \ that mark what I could not keep,” she writes in the poem “Answer to His Question.”
In the end, this collection reminds me of the wind-swept, lake-like prairies of Kansas that as a child—my family often drove across on vacation; prairie is big sky—transcendent and spare—that replicates a literal, universal reality (the Altiplano, the Asiatic Steppes)—a landscape without artifice—nothing decorative or ornamental. It is also a landscape where tragedy is not easily obscured. And though Champion deals with contexts that are hardly authentic, her deft handling of them make them feel so. Reluctant Mistress‘ too, is a landscape without artifice. I highly recommend it.
Hannah Rodabaugh received her MA from Miami University and her MFA from Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School. Her work has been published in Flim Forum Press’ anthology A Sing Economy, and in Defenestration, Used Furniture Review, and Palimpsest. She currently lives in Boise, ID where she teaches at BSU.