Better She Had Slapped Me

Reviewed By

Tongue contains none of the typical tricks, irony, or obsessive self-absorption of many recent books. Each poem is self-contained, yet are all of a piece.

Rachel Contreni Flynn’s second book Tongue is partly a coming-of-age story about sisters becoming closer to each other through the traumatic perils of growing up, but it is partly about the ways Flynn’s language serves as an anodyne to rescue the child from miserable circumstances. Flynn’s forms and lines work well with her chosen subject matter; yet their range and inventiveness are not pyrotechnical. The forms allow for the reader’s empathy to make connections to the little girl as she cares for an elderly and disturbing grandmother, besides navigating the “normal” pitfalls of adolescence.

Like Mary Karr’s amusing memoir of toxicity The Liar’s Club, this book shows bravery; Flynn’s facility with language and technique sharpen the danger of the speaker’s memories. The memories are turned into objects the reader can marvel at, and shudder at the dark places of her own past. The most admirable quality of Flynn’s writing is its psychological sturdiness. Part of this quality has to do with the authority of the speaker of these poems. Part of it also has to do with line breaks—is the word that comes after the caesura of white space expected or not? Is the tension (and therefore promise) delivered or not? Tongue contains none of the typical tricks, irony, or obsessive self-absorption of many recent books. Each poem is self-contained, yet are all of a piece. I don’t prefer the arc of a book to necessarily contain a legible narrative, but in this case it is done with subtlety and attention to pitch and pacing.

Take, for example, the way the ending of “Corolla” allows the speaker to look head-on into a tormenting memory with subtle changes of tense and particular detail of nouns. Even though the poem uses the past tense, the present creeps in at the last moment all of a sudden before the final thud of the dream-like ending couplet:

in our own soft-core stories,
we concocted notions
of abandoned farmhouses,
claw-foot bathtubs. Later,
when the boy took me
to a dance, I came home
to report how he grabbed
my breast like a piglet,
his breath in my face all
Swisher Sweet and Pemmican.

And my sister stiffened, drifted
away. Better she had slapped me.

The poem gives the aural pleasure of the playfulness of “sister stiffened, drifted,” and the change in tense fuses the past and present in surprising, unsettling ways. The smell of the boy’s breath, animal-like, also echoes the speaker’s fantasy about trapping him in a pen that appears earlier in the poem. The adjectives, too, which are normally a travesty in lesser poems, instead add resonance and depth. The poem shows the naivety and frailty of the adolescent’s mind. It is tricky to evoke this in a poem since the speaker, an adult with a sophisticated set of language skills, must create the memory of the fragile ignorance of the child with the tools of the adult. The past tense makes this realistic, but the nuanced line “his breath in my face all” infuses the poem with the eerie sensation that these memories can wreak havoc on the adult mind. The boy’s breath stinks of cheap cigars and some sort of dried meat. The final sentence, in the subjunctive tense, expresses that bittersweet loss of possibility. It is not enough to have an upsetting memory, but added to it is the loss of missed chances, bad decisions, doubt, and wish.

One flaw in Tongue, as I see it, is the occasional move too close to sentimentality. In general, these poems are just on the side of being unsentimental, but there is risk in writing about childhood. First, for every interesting anecdote a child can come up with, an adult (especially a writer) can come up with at least 20. Second, many of these poems are directed at the sister, but give the illusion that they are directed at the reader. Flynn has a few strategies in her arsenal to recreate her childhood memories while also creating psychic distance between the writer and the subject matter. She can use the first-person singular, the first-person plural, or the somewhat awkward third-person stunt double for the speaker called “the girl,” which makes it seem like the speaker and the sister are preternaturally closer via a pronoun. For example, in “Trapper Keeper” the final lines “The girl understands this: if she has changed, / she must change again” echoes the poem’s beginning but the poem cannot resist getting much of its punch from the subject matter (“her friends will not understand / the canoe and the morphine.”) In this rare case—perhaps there was no good way to solve this problem when the poem was written—the delicate balance between evoking memory of emotion and evoking the emotion has made something more like Kenny G than John Coltrane.

Despite my earlier admonishment about narrative, one of the most spectacular poems in Tongue is “Story,” which appears midway in the book, at the beginning of the second section. A virtuosic display of skill, this poem tends to include most of the threads of the book, though in a variety of voices and approaches. Since the poem is sectional, it allows the lens to get closer and further from the subject matter, and thereby enlarging the reader’s empathy for the speaker that Flynn is able to create. The poem shows the grandmother’s haze of alcohol and cigarettes, and the courage it must have taken to want to write these poems.

There is artfulness in the way the poems were arranged, and there is the slow-moving shock of what is being described. Some of these poems have the lurid draw not unlike driving past a car wreck on a highway. I find it surprising and appalling that only six of these poems appeared in literary journals when they are clearly first-rate work. What is happening? Assuming Flynn sent more than six of these to magazines, where were the editors?

Sean Singer’s first book Discography won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize, selected by W.S. Merwin, and the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America. He has also published two chapbooks, Passport and Keep Right On Playing Through the Mirror Over the Water, both with Beard of Bees Press and is the recipient of a Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. His work has recently appeared in Memorious, Pleiades, Souwester, Iowa Review, New England Review, and Salmagundi. He has a Ph.D. in American Studies from Rutgers-Newark. He lives in Harlem, New York City. More from this author →