A Sunny Place with Adequate Water, Mary Biddinger’s new collection from Black Lawrence Press, is an idyllic scene…post-apocalypse. It is where beauty becomes darker. Where the light of an electric rail line illuminates an abandoned parking lot and where bombs are filled with thread.
The collection itself is so much about gentrification and a neighborhood falling to ruin. The great duality of this collection is displayed most prominently in Biddinger’s quick turns in language. The poems are jarring and honest, and so many of the lines reach out to push you, two-handed across the chest.
In “Pick-Your-Own,” she writes, “You would take the rails apart with an ax/ and a little anger. You/ always had the jaw for that kind of work.” There is an authentic sarcasm and bite to these words, a realness that powers through the work.
Lines like “The cold trickle of children/ from a neighborhood school turned/ into a simulated knife/ fight between warring factions,” and “Remember when your biggest worry/ was where? And now it’s how many/ leave will keep you alive” are standouts from the first poem, “Fortunes and Misfortunes” because they set the tone. It’s as if the poem is saying, “Indeed, we’re going to spend some time talking about the things I’ve seen and the way my city will never be as it was.”
A series of poems involving real and imaginary coin-operated machinery is woven throughout the collection—items like, “Coin-Operated Rattle Without a Snake,” “A Coin-Operated Lung and a Half,” and “A Coin-Operated City of the Past.” The duality is here again in the many juxtapositions of language. In the mechanical, unnatural, sterile way that machinery is often presented, pushed up against the way it is meant to provide a warmth, a service, a convenience.
We see this duality here in “A Coin-Operated Railroad”:
My tautologies weren’t taut at all, so I
did what anyone else would do. I departed
then re-embarked. Doubled my nothing.
Climbed the frost-tip tree that was no tree
but just a daub of glue to seal a root.
In these many Coin-Operated poems, the speaker’s contradictions can be seen as a type of renewal and replacement; in the same way that gentrification represents a type of replacement (or displacement). In “A Coin-Operated Gentrification Zone of the Heart,” the poet writes, “My/ city died because we made it die, and then we loved it even more./ Suddenly we were authentic, and the stores started carrying our likenesses.” Biddinger gets at the essence of gentrification here. She subtly identifies a shift in community by displaying just how quickly an enterprise will commodify the artifacts and ethos of a population for the sake of profit.
When inside this book, one may be reminded of Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street, wherein the experiences can singularly exist as the speaker’s alone, but can also exist as the shared experiences of those around them. In Mango Street, we watch a changing neighborhood from the perspective of a child, and similarly, in A Sunny Place, the reader moves through this collection with the feeling of being someone inside the same house, on the same street. You too are familiar with the “windows issuing/ cologne that smelled like cherry disinfectant” and “a girl’s purple jacket snagged/ across a length of chain link.”
In this collection we encounter something like an individual stream of consciousness with perfect interruptions of lucidity and reflection. One such exemplary poem is “Coin-Operated Engine Finds Its Steam,” where “The coin-operated Abraham Lincoln had been whacked/ in the rear by a tin woodpecker for the last time.” erupts later into “The first time/ I really looked inside your mouth, I noticed a lack// of fillings. So I saturated you. It was the only thing I could/ do at the time.” While some lines may seem random or misdirected, the poet always comes back to a series of stunning images, which allows the reader to make their own meaning of the work.
Biddinger, never afraid to be a bit silly or humorous, A Sunny Place is a little weird, a little quirky, and a lot beautiful. We feel that, yes, this place was once lovely, and yes, that is all disappearing. In the final poem of the book, “Inside Every Vending Machine It’s 1979,” the reader is invited to the intimacy of being inside oneself as a witness of something gone missing. Just like the speaker of this book and the people who live in a city where the lights are flickering in elegy, “Everything/ is looking for a way out, or a way back in.”