Indiana, Lipstick, and Algebra

The University of Wisconsin Press

80 pages, $24.95

The gates to the world of professional poetry publication, unlike those to the world of professional fiction or nonfiction publication, are almost constantly guarded by a three-headed beast called The First Book Contest. Only rarely do publishing houses read first book poetry manuscripts directly. Hence, the beast, which wakes up every October, gorges itself on 20 contests’ worth of manuscripts from all over the country, and then retires at bedtime, November 15 or 30. Over the winter, the papers are digested in the bloated tummy until this creature wakes up again in the spring for a short snack. One of the beast’s heads empties a poet’s pockets: Each contest costs between $15 and $25 to enter. Sometimes the entry fee includes a year-long subscription to the journal associated with the press, or it includes a copy of the winning manuscript, ensuring at least a few hundred copies of the winning manuscript will be sold. The second head regurgitates rejection slips and invitations to submit again. The third head spins publishing seasons into years. Many successful first books are the result of four to five years of this process, and countless revisions to the manuscript and the poems in it. The resulting manuscript rarely resembles the original.

Bruce Snider’s successful foray through the gates of publishing was no different. His collection, The Year We Studied Women, emerged with a subtle edge and is both risky and vulnerable in its subject matter. It was selected for the 2003 Felix Pollack Prize in Poetry (University of Wisconsin Press) for its purity, artlessness, and exceptional narrative voice.

Originally from rural Indiana, Snider has been a familiar figure in the Austin writing community for 10 years. Those who are literarily inclined may know him from his seven-year stint as administrative associate of the University of Texas’s James A. Michener Center for Writers, or from his days as a Michener Fellow.

This September he left Austin for Palo Alto, where he is a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University.

Snider’s poetry is accessible and moving. His language, precise and unobtrusive, reminds me of a good make-up artist of the early ’90s (and I feel I can say this, as the collection opens with “A Drag Queen Is Like a Poem”). It takes a lot of skill, discipline, and a tremendous sense of self to apply make-up in such a way that the features are noticed, not the make-up.

His themes are universal: childhood and adolescence, growing up in a world that doesn’t allow you to be yourself, the relationship between parents and between parents and children. But the setting is particular: rural Indiana a couple of decades ago. There are proms, algebra, hunting and fishing, a farmer discovering a dead child, a cancer victim looking for a wig. The collection is often an exposition of several kinds of love, and the disguises love wears.

Written with a certain innocence and honesty that one seldom finds after adolescence, each ache hits you as if for the first time. But the innocence is tempered by experience and objectivity, so that you are spared the rage and frustration of your teenaged years. Snider has the emotional control of Larry Levis and the conscience of Philip Levine, but with more fashion sense than either one, even though the book is about coming of age in the late 1980s, a time in which fashion was woefully misguided.

Still, we see in Nana’s rouge and eye-brow pencil protection from the “desire & love & heartbreak/ seeping from the phonograph’s mouth.” And April and the narrator’s lipstick and fingernail polish celebrate youthful bodies, “unfinished, almost ethereal, thin as the shadow puppets / we made at night in the porch light, all those birds / and wolves coming out of our hands.” As Snider puts it in “The History of Lipstick” (which perches impudently, yet appropriately, next to the poem entitled “Sperm”), “Beauty’s history is paint and shape, / the body’s insistence / on making of itself a canvas.” After all,

Joan of Arc wore it [lipstick] in the Crusades to keep her spirits up. Harriet Tubman greeted each escaping slave with a bright lip print on the cheek. Florence Nightingale applied hers by candlelight, blotting it on paper even as she dressed a soldier’s wounds.

It makes you wish more people took advantage of beauty as they went about their serious work.

Technically, Snider’s poetry makes frequent and innovative use of simile and metaphor. Normally I view similes with the same suspicion I would view an uncle’s card trick: the conjuring up of a desire that won’t be fulfilled, a phrase drawing attention to the fact there is no precise way to describe what will sit on a page, imperfectly described. Or a party trick used for lack of confidence in the ability to converse. But this is not how Bruce Snider manages his similes. Perhaps the method is best described in the poem opening the collection, “A Drag Queen Is Like a Poem”:

… ultimately poem is to the poet as drag is to the queen, each word fitting together like male and female, like an infant and his mother, two bodies, two hearts, but one coming out of the other.

And so it is with Snider’s similes, which, born of the objects they would modify, take on lives and narratives of their own. They are most forceful in the tarot card sequence, “A Reading,” in which each poem opens with a living simile or a metaphor, raring to flee its fate. The technique is fitting here, for the sequence examines one of the most evolving and difficult-to-define relationships—that of father and son. The use of simile actually serves as a simile in itself, á la Shakespeare’s “my mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun,” slyly pointing out difference through a similitude. Snider often employs humor and a healthy sense of self-irony:

As the rifle answers the cries of the geese, this card answers you, small thudding carcasses at your feet. Your father turns to look at you with the same unflappable expression. Don’t worry, he says, we kill them for their meat. And suddenly you’d like to start over. You’d like to be something else in this scene, the field maybe, even the gun. You’d like to be the bullet in the gun. You’d like to sail through the air toward explosive release… (“Temperance”)

The poetic technique employed in The Year We Studied Women works so well because it makes perfect sense, given the collection’s subject material. Snider understands that humans very seldom communicate their most intense and urgent messages very directly to the ones to whom they are closest. This idea has often fueled the humor of mid-westerners, and “True, My Father Is a Postman,” clearly at home in the mid-western milieu, spells it out for us:

…If I were to write a love letter I would be certain to address it to the intended receiver, but this does not mean I would make my affections obvious. On the contrary, I might detail an event in my life without emotion or relate a story I read recently in the newspaper. Perhaps I would invent the story… Only after careful explanation would a love story begin to unfold.

Snider’s is a world in which objects and characters long to become more than they seem to be fated or expected to become. The prepubescent, androgynous age from which the narrative often speaks, makes the reader feel, along with the narrator, that anything can happen and is about to happen, though, usually, nothing new ever does. But the beauty is in the longing. Certainty is not particularly positive: “It’s not the numbers you dislike—/the 3s or 5s or 7s—but the way / the answers leave no room for you…” But the alternative to certainty is no better:

Even the Algebra teacher waving his formulas like baseball bats, pauses occasionally when he tells you that a 9 and a 2 are traveling in a canoe on a river in a canyon. How long will it take them to complete their journey? That is if they don’t lose their oars and panic and strike the rocks, shattering the canoe (“The Certainty of Numbers”).

The Year We Studied Women belongs to the few collections of poetry that, though poetically masterful and quite strong, appeal to people who claim indifference to poetry, or, worse, those who claim to dislike, or “not get” it. I tested it on various, unsuspecting acquaintances. Who could resist such surprising, deceptively simple narratives, such a courteous, intriguing narrator, and the guilty pleasures of remembering adolescence, thankful that someone else’s was at least as complicated as yours?

Marcela Sulak is a literary translator and writer. Her poems have appeared in such journals as Fence, Indiana Review, Notre Dame Review, and Spoon River. She is currently writing her dissertation at the University of Texas.

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