Dearest Creature is California poet Amy Gerstler's umpteen millionth book, but it's the first that I've read, so we're gonna pretend for now that those others don't exist. I wasn't entirely sure what to expect—the cover features a half-dozen plastic animal heads mounted to the walls of what looks like a doll's room—and I'm rarely satisfied when I read a poet's work for the first time, but I have to say Gerstler pleasantly surprised me. The book is broken into four parts, Refugee, Creaturely, Maidenly, and Elegy, and each has its own distinctive feel, which is nice. It's good when those kinds of things aren't entirely arbitrary. All of the sections also reach back to the title, though. Most are letters to or from someone, or conversations, or other forms of direct contact. This direct speaking quality brings the book together in ways that the contents of most of the poems never could. Compare the first few lines of "Moon Salutation," from the first section—
Even as I sleep in a ravine
on a mattress of dead grass,
I do salute you.
—to the opening of "Interview with a Dog," from the second section:
Q: Why on earth did you eat that ten-dollar bill? It can't have tasted nice.
A: Don't be gruff. Anything that falls on the floor is mine. Can I have a cookie now to change my mouth lining flavor? Can I? Can I?
The third section deals mostly with the feminine, as evidenced in poems like "At the Back of a Closet, Two Dresses Converse" and "On the Fatal Consequences of Going Home with the Wrong Man from the Chicago World's Fair, 1893," but each feel at home in the collection. Take for example these lines from "Mrs. Monster Pens Her Memoirs," which again uses the voice that, by this time in the book, the reader has either connected with completely or flatly disregarded (in which case, they probably aren't reading anymore anyway, so who cares?):
Here's a technical question.
Dare I write my fractured past
(squirrelly girlhood, ravenous
adolescence, late-emerging sober
matron graces) in first-person
singular when I'm fragmented
as an undone jigsaw puzzle?
Plural as a litter of kittens?
From here the poem goes on for several pages, detailing the life of this patchwork woman. Now, I don't usually like long poems. To be honest, I don't even really like medium poems. I'm very much a fan of short, concise poetry, but Gerstler keeps her content and word choice interesting enough to hold a reader's attention. I never found myself drifting off in the middle of a page, which says a lot about the quality of her writing.
The final section, Elegy, takes a turn for the slightly depressing, but manages to do so in the same humorous and direct tone that I'd come to enjoy from the first three sections. The poet never overloads us on sorrow, but instead finds smooth roads to slowly lead the reader to an underlying sadness. In "Elegy with Peonies" she opens by saying:
Peonies may indeed be the sluttiest
flowers. Sunk in their ruffles, high on
their own old-rose perfume, they're
all voluptuous appetite. Heavy-headed
billowy blooms in botanical drag,
they make showy hibiscus and
thick-pistilled lilies look like wallpaper
motifs from a more uptight era.
The poem continues on like this, discussing the tawdriness of peonies, for a while, but then abruptly changes to the news she's just received of a friend's suicide. As she thinks back on the man's life and the way he lived it, the reader begins to see a parallel between the departed and the peonies, until ultimately the poem ends with:
I hope the heaven you're in
is replete with heavy metal riffs, science quizzes,
bisexual angels, endless wildness of mind,
and fields of eternally peaking peonies.
It would have been very difficult to understand the peonies as they pertain to a summation of this man's life without first going into the fact that they "may indeed be the sluttiest / flowers." Gerstler handles the poem beautifully.
by Amy Gerstler
As I've mentioned before, I don't think it's right to rate poetry on any kind of numerical system. You either connect with it or you don't. Personally, I think Dearest Creature is a fantastic book that covers a lot of ground, but does so in a clear voice that brings the entire collection together. So far, in the last year, there have only been two poetry reviews, and the first one sucked. Hopefully you take my advice on this one and look for Amy Gerstler's work the next time you're searching for something new to read.
Keep reading, Genoshans!