My Scarlet Ways by Tanya Larkin

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In age of poetry saturated with the irony and airy nonsense of the last phalanx of the grandchildren of the New York School, it is wonderfully refreshing to read Tanya Larkin’s poems in My Scarlet Ways. She uses a refreshing synthesis of lyric and narrative poetic modes in an expressive and intellectually rigorous way.

Larkin engages with poetry on the level of language and music even as she quarrels with speakers who appear to offer the writer transcriptions—these are both offered in tender and invective modes. Larkin’s poetic ancestor, Emily Dickinson, has given her permission, in a way, to wrestle with inner and outside pressures on female expectations for motherhood. These are hewn out of her beautiful language, ability to be expansive within a range of 10-12 lines, and to question not only motherhood, but also the ways the adult woman nurtures the inner child, in themes of freedom and responsibility. What expresses freedom and responsibility more for the writer than the act of making poems?

The opening poem, “Transport,” uses words like “milked,” “suck a brood,” “wet nurse,” “crowd my milk,” along with surprising turns like “hydro-muscular”, “snug and sleeping”, and in its final, devastating and demanding image, “they strapped me to a prow for luck.” The poem has blood in its veins—the speaker’s involvement, like a physical force, to motherhood, is nearly operatic.

Larkin is not satisfied with poems of content; her forms demand attention. In “Serenissima,” for example, she employs couplets—perhaps the most raw and naked of forms—that use enjambment to heighten tension and give surprise: “a tower, an otter, a spindle, a drum, / or thrush, the bird and the disease, // all of history would do, or just / a sandwich, a lech, a semi, an alp // but the old world I am not. The new world / flies out and never comes back.”

In “Enemy Love Song,” a “phantom sonnet,” Larkin uses 13 lines (the last trails off in its middle suggesting the missing end to the sonnet) for the structure of a love poem with no terms of endearment: “You are a beautiful tense with no language to live in,” Larkin writes. Filled with fury that only devotion to another person can summon, Larkin could be expressing the contradictory feelings of being romantically involved with another writer— sleeping with the enemy. Her cadence and tone is exactly right.

In “Elegy,” Larkin uses long lines in a kind of expansive “blank verse” combined with no punctuation, so the poem builds in pacing and energy, as each line spills into the subsequent line. She manages a sensitive take on the invective. Larkin astoundingly uses elegy not to be ironic, but to voice injustice. This poem upends the limitations of an elegy, though its sentiment on one level is elegiac, it is a powerful testament to struggling to maintain normalcy, through the tedium of loss, and to maintain appreciation for life.

God is a frequent force of angst and frustration for the speakers in My Scarlet Ways (“God is a stupid word but I’m going to / use it anyway,” she writes in “Direction.”). She—Larkin, not God—gives refreshing insight into why pain disrupts deliberate choice. If God is the mother, then the writer is the mother of the poem, giving life to the process of thought. In “The Headdress,” the speaker evokes “the dream of being sucked free / of her flesh and filled entirely with milk / she crowns the water where the floor falls / sheer her the headdress humming…” Elsewhere, as in “Heaven and Hell are Real Places,” the speaker thanks God “for giving me autumn / and unwrapping it so violently shaking / the knife in the air nicking the light then / hacking it in two and mincing it to bits / and my happiness is infinitely dying…” Alluding to Genesis 22, the story of Isaac and Abraham, the speaker expresses the sacrifices sometimes associated with free will and compulsion to obey.

Sometimes Larkin’s forms get away from her; when she has fewer restrictions in form—her 10-12 line forms serve her best—they tend to move closer to prose than necessary. For example, in “Bluestocking” and in “Middle Distance” the need to temper long lines becomes a spineless and tension-less muddle rather than seeing how long the collapsible telescope of the line can extend before breaking. Here, they seem to trail off into the edge of the page, with purposelessness.

However, Larkin is clearly an expert practitioner of poetry; she expresses a challenging and insistent female voice for the reader of the female experience. Even though women are more than half the population, they still exist as outsiders and second-class citizens in much of the world, and this includes Americans. Larkin’s speaker says: “She seemed to eat not for hunger / or pleasure but because she wanted / to be alone, uncomplicated / like wind” (“Queenright”) and in “Blue Nurse Movie”: “My jeans were too small / but she wore them anyway saying / my ass looks great in your jeans.” Earlier in the book, some maidens wear pair of jeans that are “riding up,” suggesting that the physical and psychic restraints, limitations, expectations, and possibilities for the female person in the world, and for the reader of female experience must be critiqued via poetry.

Whether Larkin evokes the Pound’s River Merchant’s Wife, the little kite-flying girl, or the lover who tells her suitor, “I am devout or with you watching. / Pig or god, I am learning how it’s done. / I have never been a genius of anything but you” (“Winding Sheet”), Larkin has made an urgent, serious book of poems that uses lyric in the best way.

Larkin’s speakers inhabit a female space that invites the sensitive reader into processes of feminist thought and feeling. Her preoccupations in language about God, urges and forces, and about the demands of language of the thinking and feeling writer, are important and should be waded through and understood. Read this book!

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 →