“Roleplay” by Juliana Gray

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In Juliana Gray’s Roleplay, though the book has its share of formal verse – triolets, sonnets, etc – don’t be surprised if you run into a zombie or two. Roleplay contains, besides a zombie love poem, a series of poems based on Hitchcock films, an imagined dating profile by an aging Nancy Drew, and a slyly comic poem about poetic suicides. Gray’s greatest gift – though she displays a number of gifts with language in the book, which won the 2010 Orphic Prize – here is her ability to elicit laughter in the middle of dark subject matter.

Full disclosure here: I love a good persona poem, and love it even more if it takes on pop culture characters, and Gray’s second book delivers this kind of poem in a number of inventive ways. Take “Nancy Drew, 45, Posts on Match.com,” for instance, in which the famous girl detective tries to describe herself and her ideal mate in the tortured language of online dating profiles:

if life is like a dark and winding stair
you follow as your lover carries the flashlight.

Turn-ons: lightning, crosswords, antique clocks…
Turn-offs: liars, secrets, drugs/disease,
men with ponytails, the “b-word,” guns.

And the ending of the poem falls with the slightly pathetic, pleading note: “My life’s a broken locket. Do you hold/ the other half? Let’s investigate.”

From Nancy Drew, Gray moves to a slightly more sinister persona in “The Devil Plans His Day,” the devil, who “overtips” the “anorexic goth barista” and judges a poetry contest and awarding “the prize to the emptiest, the most/ abstract; to others, scratch a note: so close!” Ah, I always wondered who was behind that!

The section “Box Set” has a poem for each Hitchcock Film, from “Frenzy” to “Psycho,” sometimes scolding Hitchcock (for his treatment of his daughter as an actress in his films in “Strangers on a Train,”) sometimes using the movies as metaphors for a disintegrating marriage:

Later, washing dishes, turning

around the tiny renter’s kitchen
and managing never to touch,
we must have talked about the ending:
the lines of gray, patient birds,
unmoving, unresolved.

Even if you are not a Hitchcock fan, Gray’s skillful interweavings of her own life, Hitchcock’s, and the movies he made is fascinating reading. This section alone is worth reading and re-reading.

The last section, “Against Type,” contains some poems that play with and against the idea of the hopeful ending, with poems like “Suicides” and “Cutters,” two poems that study the Sylvia Plath/violent-against-self neurotic girl clichés, our expectations of female writers.

“If we crack/ a few too many Plath jokes, we find ourselves/ in mandatory counseling,” she complains, tongue-in-cheek, in “Suicides:”

Studies blame the solipsistic “I”—
…I disagree…how could we not be seduced
by suicide, those slinky vowel glides,
the sideways glance, all sibilance and curves?
It makes me think of a slinky red dress.
That color has always looked good on me.

The poem that probably best represents Gray’s talents for formal poetry with a playful, subversive center is “Love Among the Zombies,” which tells the story of a speaker trying to seduce her lover in the middle of a zombie apocalypse by reminding him of how they got rid of her husband’s (turned zombie) corpse:

your hatchet gleamed, and blood like warm champagne
splashed across my face. You wiped my lips,
then helped me burn the body with propane.

If you can accuse Gray of anything (perhaps being flip? perverse? inverting grammar in a line to get her rhyme?) you will forgive her because of the wide-armed enthusiasm for satire and, forgive the pun, her sharp-witted bite.

Jeannine Hall Gailey served as the second Poet Laureate of Redmond, Washington. She is the author of five books of poetry, including her her most recent, Field Guide to the End of the World, winner of the Moon City Press Book Prize and the SFPA’s Elgin Award. She’s also the author of PR for Poets. Her website is www.webbish6.com and you can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @webbish6. More from this author →