Arriving from San Francisco's spoken word scene, Daphne Gottlieb has allowed her provocative and encompassing prose to be played by her readers in their heads. Her second book, Why Things Burn, gives little notice to punctuation or sentence structure and leaves us to pick through her fiery words. Never mind the grammar, this is hot.
These poems by Gottlieb burn glow off the page and trickle into the atmosphere, leaving a vagrant scent like tobacco that is poisonous not to the lungs but to the heart and mind. Why Things Burn is probably not what you would expect from someone with a Master's in poetry, but then again, maybe we all need a sharp slap to the face.
I get a lonely pang of recognition whenever a San Francisco street name winks up from a verse. Like San Fran, itself these poems are and are not what you think they will be. They damn well reinvent themselves on the pages in the very act of being read. Feminism, sex, violence, love, anger, activism, righteousness, and twists and turns of the mundane make us hate and love life. All this, getting played out by the faces we know in our own heads, relating to our own existence, wishing we could take Gottlieb out to breakfast.
What is unexpected and sweet and fresh and sharp is the clarity of Gottliebs subversion of the obvious. Language is explored but with an abiding awareness -- a provocative hand sliding over its curves and twists. As Gottlieb remarks in one poem: "We take our clothes off but language never leaves us alone." Gottlieb laments the tattoos of friends and lovers that are always sparking conversation -- hieroglyphic shorthand on biceps and inside lips to speak without speaking, the pain of communication already conquered at the tattoo parlor.
Pain is in these poems, but also a wry, funny joy that, like Gottliebs language, also does not leave you alone. Read for yourself:
Third-world Marxists say,
If we build a superhero, she will be nothing
Like Wonder Woman.
There is so much wrong
With Wonder Woman:
She is white when
Most of the world isnt ...
... Fighting crime is still fighting, say the pacifists. No fighting.
You are short-sighted, say the militants.
You are missing the point, say the post-colonialists.
Oh yeah? say the Promise Keepers.
A womans place is --
Who let YOU in? ask the lesbian separatists.
In the end, the superheroine gets sick of all the offensive defensiveness and leaves: "Let them damned well fight their own damned crime."
Words -- and not just Gottlieb's --exist in multiple dimensions simultaneously, never stopping at one meaning for any one group or person and leaving room for purposes not intended. Gottliebs words are slung with a particular ferocity that expose unexpected fault lines in personal and societal spaces. Not content to be mere protest anthems, they are proactive and fierce with wicked humor.
Suppose, perhaps, that our "feminine protections" (as Gottlieb titles the following poem) were too cute and sexy not to be savage? Is a weapon of beauty an amoral tool or a corrosive one?
and that guy on the corner calling me everyday
with his hey baby baby doncha wanna baby baby
doncha wanna piece of me
and I said yeah baby baby yeah I wanna piece of you
and took off a one-inch slab of his tongue
with my Non-Slip Lady Schick ...
... and dont even start me on what happened
the night that guy broke into my sanitary
pad -- it took me hours to clean off my Curling
Iron, my Nail File, my Tweezers ...
... Im lucky I didnt get caught red-
handed with my Pink Comfort-Tip
Scented Double Barrel Super-Plus Sawed-
Off Tampax but Thank God
for feminine protection.
PMS, empower me!
And the ironies continue to be explored. Death is beautiful, but the pursuit of beauty leads to death, especially death of the female persuasion. The last laugh is always on us.
"Convertible" -- like so many of Gottliebs pieces nicely capped beginning and end with a transmuting metaphor -- places before us Isadora Duncan who is strangled at top speed by her silken scarf and a car wheel. Eighty years later, little has changed, especially not omnipresence of the terribly hip. Lipstick once called Passion Pink or Sin Red may now be Metal, Bruise, or Vamp, but "we just want to be skinny, not deep -- we just want to halt traffic, mouths red as stop lights. ... We look so good these days were just too happy to hear that in the mortuary they use our brand of make-up." Drama queens notwithstanding, death evokes prosaic, helpless intimacies of language from us.
Pain finally wrings out humor as in the wryly affectionate "aunt irene tells time." An aging relative keeping score spins a one-sentence family tapestry of triple bypasses and dead grandmothers and miscarriages to finally place an event; "and duffy the dog hadnt been hit by the car yet so it mustve been 1988."
Words are only the vapor peeling off the ore being forged out of lifes circumstance. Gottlieb's words not only show her experiences, triumphs, loves, and anger but shin a light into our own. With language that is often convoluted, Gottlieb has transformed it into a reflective and irreverent ballad to self and societal reflection. Let the words burn into your soul.