Tell Me She Is Happy With Her Life

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In this collection, Chaple successfully fuses the personal with the spatial. As a result, an awareness of the way poems, by airing out the rooms of stanzas, can provide at once solace and disarray comes into terrible focus.

Like the museums of Elizabeth McCracken’s “Property,” Katie Chaple’s Pretty Little Rooms hold, as McCracken’s narrator explains, “the air of recent evacuation: you knew something terrible had happened to the occupants, but you hoped it might still be undone.” Chaple’s first book inhabits the ransacked bedrooms of ex-lovers, barely-tamed gardens, prisons and porno sets, even the crumbling towers of Nancy Drew mysteries. For Chaple, these rooms become the loci of full-blown trauma, and she navigates these violations of mind and body deftly and surprisingly. In this collection, Chaple successfully fuses the personal with the spatial. As a result, an awareness of the way poems, by airing out the rooms of stanzas, can provide at once solace and disarray comes into terrible focus.

It is tempting to pigeonhole the collection as one driven by autobiography because the poems feel so lived-in. But the poems never overtly offer a “confessional” self or seem like set dressings designed to obscure personal revelation. Instead, the poems constantly cycle between both. Where other poets might simply blurt out their life stories, or utilize persona poems to mask those stories, Chaple costumes herself in rooms. Doing so allows her to inhabit the expected refuges of “women’s poetry”—gardens, kitchens, the epistle’s blank page—but she’ll do so cautiously, with a meta-textual nod to herself and her readers: “you should be wary / of sentimentality.”

As a further corrective to the threat of sentimental lapses, Flaubert and Wollstonecraft mingle with the pseudonymous Carolyn Keene and the stars of softcore prison porn. Chaple’s interiors are perfectly appointed, and then tossed by the rude grope of coitus. The speaker in “My Epicurean Curse” meticulously prepares a parade of dishes, and then offers them nyotaimori- style, the body of a nude woman becoming the serving tray. Chaple is a poet who will say of Nancy Drew,

I mean, a girl who, if tied, knows how to clasp her hands together
so she can free them, is a girl who possesses
more than a nodding acquaintance with bondage,

and the result never feels forced. Instead of vacillating, the poems draw strength from the collision of high and low culture, from the coupling of quiet introspection with the middle finger’s salute. At the intersection of these we find a consciousness wrestling with the palpable anxiety of the personal becoming public. “Tell me” her speaker will insist, at once pleading and imperative, “Tell me she is happy with her life.”

One of the book’s finest poems is “Charlie Chaplin Enters a Charlie Chaplin Look-alike Contest” the first line of which is, “And comes in third.” Such a pratfall perfectly captures the poem’s imagined subject, but getting it out of the way quickly allows Chaple to focus on the book’s central preoccupations: the unlikeliness of our own likeness, how uneasy we are in our own bodies. She repeats this image of the Tramp, doubling and redoubling on itself, until he is staring at a theater full of duplicates, “all selves moving, pantomiming the pantomime.” In doing so, the poet has not only invented a tender homage to one of film’s great originators, she has also discovered a way to highlight the collection’s pervasive anxiety concerning self-reflexivity—one shouldn’t overlook the subtle mirroring of Chaple and Chaplin.

It’s this sublimation that also anchors the book’s title poem. “Pretty Little Rooms” focuses on the skull found in Petrarch’s tomb, later discovered to be that of an unknown, unnamed woman. The poem is a triptych—doctor’s study, monk’s cell, scientist’s lab—and in each, questions of identity and history resound. In the end, the final question remains paradoxically elliptical:

Whose body was not loved enough
that her skull could travel like a pebble,
could be used to punctuate the line of a man’s body?

It’s unfortunate that the question of a woman’s place in literary history remained so long a puzzle. Even worse, that its answer is still under negotiation today. We still live in rooms where something terrible has been done that can’t be undone. The poem lays bare the sad fact of the search for knowledge: we’re often only after the answers we already know. Even given that unfortunate truth, Chaple ushers her reader into the last room any of us will ever occupy, and in the dark silence of that skull, demands that we confront such erasures.

For all of her virtuosity, Chaple seems far more interested in verisimilitude, arranging the life of (and the lives around) her speakers in ways that are almost always attempts to revise the shopworn narratives that suffuse the spaces we inhabitant, and who we are within them. In these rooms that enclose both knowing and longing, Chaple arrives at understandings that are neither haute nor homespun, and are instead subtle renegotiations of what’s expected of her as a writer and a woman. It’s a sophisticated first book, but it’s also brash and a little hungover. From this disparity, the book draws its confidence, and the result is one of the best first books of last year.

Read “How clearly you can see some nights,” a Rumpus Original Poem by Katie Chaple.

Eric Smith has written reviews for Pleiades, Smartish Pace, Verse, and the National Book Foundation. His poems appear most recently in Five Points and Best New Poets 2010. He is also an editor for Cellpoems, a txt-message based poetry journal, and teaches at Marshall University. More from this author →