Sometimes, the Dresser feels ambivalent about writing book reviews. What does her opinion matter? What has been learned by spending the time on a particular book? What good can come of such writing.
In Lee Woodman’s Lifescapes from Kelsay Books, this kind of questioning is applied to the life of the woman narrating these poems, starting with “Can You Live with Ambiguity?” In this pantoum, a woman meets an uptight pediatrician through a want-ad. They both enjoy the arts so they see a dark German film which brings up schadenfreude and the question of “life-time mate.” Among the many obstacles is that this man has three sons and family baggage of parents who didn’t express love well or possibly at all.
You had three sons but revealed them slowly.
I sensed you were a tiger, fiercely protecting your cubs—
caution ruled your world, but you met me in Berlin.
You described your irate mother, absent tight-lipped father.
I learned you were a tiger, fiercely protecting your cubs,
yet your gentle delight in opera, jazz, and fine arts turned my heart.
Did you resemble your irate mother, absent tight-lipped father.
Avid reader, successful pediatrician…surely, you must be caring.
What’s particular wonderful about the pantoum is how fluidly it helps shape and apply the stated facts. So after the pediatrician describes his parents, the repetition of the line questions whether this man is like his parents. As the narrator moves through the progression of this relationship various flags surface around money, decisions about such things as where to vacation, and even what time to go to bed. By the end of the poem and as a good pantoum will do we come back to the first line “You did ask once if I could live with ambiguity.”
What the Dresser particularly loves is the way Woodman plays with ambiguity. For example, in the poem “Secrets Between an Actress and a Prostitute,” the narrator, who is on a plane, decides that she will present herself to the unknown seatmate as an actress who has played parts in plays with controlling men. She has already typecast her seatmate as a prostitute based on her appearance. Except what she learns from the woman wearing “spiky sandals, toenails flashing dark purple polish” and sporting “high-teased hair” is that appearance deceives—this woman has a doctorate in economics and was educated in an elite prep school. Then the woman questions her choice to be an actress, if she likes playing people unlike herself and what about her husband when she is away. So the narrator thinks about how she comes across to other people. Then reality intrudes as the plane gets into turbulence. In real life, the narrator seems to be thinking about separating from her husband and what that means to her identity. The poem closes with the narrator wondering if her husband will be home when she returns and if he can read her mind.
Woodman seems to enjoy inhabiting other identities and excels in writing about such scenarios. In her villanelle “Spirits,” the poet invites the reader to see her as the goddess witch Hecate. Still, the narrator links this perception of herself to the men around her.
Harken the wild man, the lover and knight
who pushes me higher, delights in my pen.
Call me Hecate, I travel by night as
darkness descends, I bloom and take flight.
Lifescapes ends with “Divorce Prayer: In Perpetuity Throughout the Universe.” Written in five couplets that do not rhyme or attempt anything other than a peace meditation, the prayer aptly observes that the odds are good one can achieve fulfillment for happiness with good intentions. The trick is to let go of “money, possessions, accolades.” Perhaps this poem is the antidote to ambiguity and the escape into being other than what you are.
Photo of the author by Sonya Melescu.