The subjects in Rebecca Hazelton’s debut collection, Fair Copy, are unmistakably specimens: alien creatures teeming under glass—animated, cellular, breathing. This isn’t surprising when you consider each poem was born from the first line of every twenty-ninth poem in Emily Dickinson’s Complete Works, a conceit born out of the poet’s kinship with the number (she was twenty-nine when she first composed these poems) and the poet. Much as her work was steeped in the rhythms of Church songs, Dickinson also brought an objective, scientific eye to the world outside her window and inside her heart. Indeed, to her the creatures of the world—fly, snake, bee, human—were specimens to be examined for their inherent life and inevitable movement toward death.
What’s surprising about Hazelton’s poems is how her voice—contemporary, scandalous, sexy—remains original while paying homage to her muse. Rather than adopting Dickinson’s stultifying rhythms, Hazelton has synthesized her cold remove and added to it a sublimated burn. The speakers in Hazelton’s poems “hover above what they covet,” typically employing a deluge of images that tell emotionally coherent stories even as they eschew most conventions of traditional narrative poetry. Her poems are a perfect marriage of style and substance, equally comfortable deploying epigrammatic wisdom and pop culture asides, painfully aware “all that pleasures / for a moment brings regret by morning.”
By engaging with Dickinson’s writing so intimately, Hazelton is constructing a poetics of feminine solitude that is, nonetheless, engaging with the world around her much as her speakers are also reflecting it. This is most evident in poems like [Candor—my tepid friend—], which deal with explicitly female subjects:
Colorless princess with conical hat,
assemble your ensemble to the virginal standard—
now comes the unicorn’s horn, the antidote to unblushing
dreams, to part your cardigan set,
obdurate as it’s been, to reveal the ivory
ribcage, the collarbone
meek like a
Here Hazelton is playing with the princess figure, a familiar archetype in the fantasy genre and one of the first “roles” young girls are taught to see as a trajectory, however unrealistic, for their future adult lives. Hazelton offers a critique beginning with the word “colorless,” suggesting that the princess lacks vibrancy in her appearance and, by extension, her personality. She is a flat character meant to live up to a “virginal standard.” She’s not in possession of any sexual agency, of any desires of her own. The princess exists to serve a role. Action is performed upon her. In this case, the unicorn’s phallic horn provides the princess with an “antidote to unblushing / dreams,” a strikingly subversive metaphor for sexual penetration that draws its power from the deft way Hazelton characterizes the princess’s loss of innocence at the hands of a creature that is itself often a symbol of innocence. Since the princess’s humility runs so deep that even her collarbone is “meek,” the only way to cure her of it is to peel her skin away and completely eviscerate her. The language never veers into the visceral; much the images in this poem and others, Hazelton employs delicate, almost cutesy language, the sort of language that surrounds young girls, to talk about trauma and violence.
Of course, Hazelton’s subjects and concerns are too dynamic to be characterized under the umbrella of the feminine. She has interesting things to say about the world of men; many of the poems in this book are written to a beloved or beloveds, and meditate on the way masculinity and the body intersect, often using comparisons to animals to telegraph the emotional dynamic between the speaker and her subjects, a tactic the speaker also employs when talking about herself. Often these comparisons to animals lack specificity, as in [The Merchant of the Picaresque]:
Men in sleep aren’t boys, but aren’t
exactly men, either— they soften,
revert to animal,
curled-up beast […]
Not without violence, even now,
your hands clasp when brushed,
or seek out my haunch, my wrist, and hold
for a time, release with a soft grunt, affirm
that I’m here, or someone is.
The speaker seems mystified by the metamorphosis of the subject from adult to child, then to something more inherently innocent, a “curled-up beast.” Something like a dog or a cat. The speaker dictates the terms of her lover’s transformation, but cannot deny that his inherent nature persists, the tinge of violence that inevitably marks a masculine body. Even in sleep the lover reacts aggressively, tensing up, when touched, holding the speaker’s wrist, her hips (also compared to animal’s haunches, uniting the two) but not possessively. The speaker reads the situation with tenderness—her sleeping lover simply wants to affirm that, even in a dream, he’s still here, a part of our physical world. Yet we cannot ignore the small fleck of sadness in the when the speaker says that her lover is reaching out to affirm that she’s “here, or someone is.” Given time, she casts doubt on the connection they share through the partition separating wakefulness from sleep. Between their masculine and feminine bodies, the pillow and her lover’s “pretty hair.”
Fair Copy establishes Rebecca Hazelton as a poet of subtle language and rich emotional clarity, a poet who can dip every word in glitter without sacrificing the underlying darkness surrounding her innocent, curious, wild-eyed speakers. The complexity of her cool, evocative voice and the dynamic line she cuts across gender, genre, and time, cement her considerable talents. “Now only one knot binds my / desire” to see what’s to come.