The Richardson Review

Story Tom & Emma Richardson

Book_GirlsOfPeculiarCatherine Pierce’s second book-length collection of poems (following Famous Last Words, 2008) reminds the reader why poetry is so important — how we engage with one another’s joys and anxieties through the beauty of language, how we can reflect on our own needs and desires through another person’s acute vision. The first reading of Pierce’s collection is a powerful experience, but the poems cry out for multiple readings, with each succeeding reading bringing richer rewards.

What is the world of Pierce’s poems? It has beauty, where “wisteria is hinting / into bloom,” but lest the reader be lulled into thinking springtime or life offers benign sweetness, the next line acknowledges that “dropped pine limbs / have cracked the windshield.” Another poem is a letter to the atom bomb: “I confess — you were my high school obsession.”

Another, “Everything an Amulet or Omen,” offers a list of OCD actions, amulets against disaster: “Four taps on the door, four sips, / four nods, four yeses under cover of basement dark. / If you do it right, your brother’s limbs / will stay intact.”

Pierce’s world throbs with danger, uncertainty, and chaos; the worried voices in her poems speak to real and imagined fears, and comfort seems far off or impossible. In one poem, a girl’s “parents beg her from her room” and another poem also emphasizes loneliness and “otherness”: “Oh, these girls. They are dumb / As bicycles … If they knew that my world is not their world.” The title of this collection is taken from “A Short Biography of the American People by City,” an amusing and cleverly-mapped journey through interesting and unusual place names: “The boys / in Boring long for the girls of Peculiar,” but the girls of Peculiar are “sick of the men of Ogle” and are wise to the men’s ways, having learned important lessons from a counselor’s “road trip / from Blueball to Intercourse to Climax.” Ultimately, though, the voices of “A Short Biography” — like the personae of the collection as a whole — desire to “migrate east, crossing / rivers and hills to find one another in Fear Not.”

Pierce’s careful crafting of lines complements the unease and uncertainty evoked in many of the poems; a repeated use of enjambment keeps the reader from neat “conclusions” at the ends of lines and increases a pervasive sense of discomfort. On the other hand, Pierce’s lines and poems offer what Robert Frost says poetry gives: “a momentary stay against confusion.” (Saturnalia Books, 78 pp. $14.00)

EMMA: Catherine Pierce’s poems certainly appeal to the pessimistic angels of my nature, a pessimism at which our children poke gentle fun. Knowing me well, our daughter once gave me “The Worst-Case Scenario Daily Calendar” (“How to Jump from a Moving Car,” “How to Escape from Quicksand,” “How to Survive a Rattlesnake Bite”) as a gag gift — but I memorized each page; if you ever need to know how to survive under a collapsed grand piano, give me a call. The world is a perilous place.

My favorite poem is “The Guidance Counselor to the Girl” in which a girl gets the results of an aptitude test: “The test suggests an aptitude for solitary work.” A litany of solitary possibilities follows: “computer programmer?” “Flower arranger?” “Planetarium operator?” “Throw-pillow by the fire?” “Lost gold /stud in the sand?” The final suggestion is “the iron clapper / in a wind chime,” but the counselor seems skeptical: “Well, I don’t know, my dear — / I imagine you’d have to create the wind yourself.” Surely that’s what Pierce and all poets do: they create the wind, they offer to us in the midst of the chaos of human existence an order, a kind of cerebral amulet, a momentary stay against confusion.

TOM: But Pierce’s poems also appeal to the optimistic angels of my nature, which is a testament to the quality and effectiveness of Pierce’s writing. I am especially partial to “The Books Fill Her Apartment Like Birds”:

First just a few, then more, then more—
this one a gift, this one a pity adoption. They flutter
as she passes. They call
when she comes home. She strokes them,
soothes them. They flap, agitated.

Emma accuses me of liking to take our books off the shelves and fondle them, but I understand “their chattering demands”; they call to me, “how they need me!” Like our own books, Pierce’s poems connect with my experience and reach out to my soul. Although I was not obsessed with the atom bomb, after reading John Hersey’s Hiroshima in high school I came to understand its horror and ferocity; yet, like the persona of “Dear Atom Bomb,” I also understand that the everyday threats of diseases and accidents are the real and present terrors of life. Pierce concludes “A Catalogue of My Wants from Age 16 to the Present” with a desire in the “Now” that also serves as an invitation from the poet to the reader: “To live inside every word.” There is life inside Pierce’s words, and those words make a good place in which to live.