Review by Alexa Winik
In the imaginary landscape of Rebecca Perry’s Beauty/Beauty, published by Bloodaxe Books in 2015, a gamut of literary, historical and mythological allusions summons characters as varied as Lorca, Lady Jane Grey, and the Old Norse poetic hero Angantýr. Consequently, I was not surprised when I found myself researching the history of postcards after reading Perry’s poem “Django Fontina”. This title, I learned, refers to poetry written on postcards and distributed to random strangers, a fitting allusion for a poem packed with travel scenes that appeal to empathy. Embodying the ethos of this mysterious action, Perry writes:
In Egypt, from a hot air balloon,
I saw a funeral—
a body in a white sheet
lowered into the sand. In Hong Kong,
a man covered in bees.
In Italy, the international space station
flew by three nights in a row,
Throughout Perry’s debut collection, the remarkable is never stratospheres away, but always nearby in the comings and goings of ordinary life. She taps into this Emersonian spirit of discovering the “miraculous in the common” through infusing each of her forty-two poems with provocative imagery, sometimes as bizarre as a chicken heart, pet cemetery, or deceased Sasquatch on a double carriageway. The result is a reading experience that feels like receiving forty-two django fontina postcards all at once: bewildering at times, but nevertheless wondrous.
What unifies Perry’s seemingly disparate images and literary allusions is her persistent invitation for readers to wonder alongside her at the complexities of everyday life, as told through her eyes as a twenty-something Londoner. “Sweetheart, come and settle at a place near me,” she writes in one of her opening poems with words that feel addressed to her readers as much as to her speaker’s lover.
Travel is a prominent theme in this collection, but the distances crossed in Beauty/Beauty are not merely geographical. Perry traverses more emotional and psychological terrain in poems like “A Guide to Love in Icelandic” in which she merges the language of abstraction with a litany of vivid, concrete details to construct multiple definitions of love:
And it’s like love
when the sun disappears for months
and when you stick cloves into an orange.
And when, in the woods, antlers fall from deer onto grass
it’s like love.
To persist into spring when you have lost
some part of the whole self.
Similarly, in “Shifting”, Perry employs the subtleties of anthropomorphism and euphonic diction to negotiate the banality of a loved one’s death:
All of us crammed in there
like buffalo standing before water at nightfall, looking ahead
[ . . .]
The soft tread of us, our press into the grass;
temporary craters on soft earth and proof of us being alive,
a dissatisfied herd breathing quietly, waiting to act as one.
Buffaloes, even metaphorical ones, may seem out of place at a funeral. Yet one of Perry’s greatest strengths in this collection is her ability to conjure peculiar details that illuminate new pathways for exploring even the most timeworn themes such as the limitations of language, the ambivalence of human emotion, and the symbiotic relationship of love and loss.
Poetry that hinges on such familiar themes inevitably risks dancing on the knife-edge of sentimentality. At times, Beauty/Beauty takes the plunge off that edge into cliché, which is, in my view, the collection’s primary weakness. In “Dear Stegosaurus”, for instance, Perry repurposes the fragmented praises of a Petrarchan sonnet to express affection for an extinct dinosaur. But her otherwise surprising metaphors, which transmute the dinosaur’s spikes into “a row of abandoned kites”, fall flat with a final line that compares the dinosaur’s mouth to a lacklustre “sky full of stars.” Such flaws tend to surface in Perry’s more experimental poems like this one, wherein she promises the sublime, but delivers the saccharine instead.
However, these shortcomings do not detract from Perry’s undoubtedly promising future as an emerging experimental poet. Beauty/Beauty, for all its flaws, evinces a courageous voice full of tender conviction that is resonant enough to be short-listed for the T.S. Eliot Prize among prestigious poets such as Mark Doty, Sean O’Brien, and former winner Don Paterson.
In her more successful experimental poems Perry’s voice is transporting. “Pow”, the first and, in my view, strongest experimental poem in the collection, allows Perry’s unassuming yet powerful voice to sing. The jolt foreshadowed in the title arrives in the simple but devastating beauty of her final line: “Though I am listing flowers/I am not thinking of flowers.” With its broken syntax, frequent enjambment, and extended lineation, “Pow” reads just as a poem about linguistic deconstruction should—fragmented, stilted, and undecided.
Perry also uses divided lineation to mount incisive critiques of socially constructed gender norms and ideals of feminine beauty. In “Poem in which girl has no door on her mouth”—which Perry claims was inspired by Anne Carson’s essay The Gender of Sound—she describes the suffocating outcome of these social constructions on female lived experience:
the girl in the bathroom her words are waiting
the way pips are suspended in the throat of an apple
Structured around gaps and empty page, absence and presence, this experimental form reinforces the poem’s exploration of the relationship between the female body and space and, as a result, amplifies the profound conviction of Perry’s feminist voice.
Beauty/Beauty is not a perfect book. Yet even its flaws hold charm when encompassed by such poignant snapshots of fragility and wonder along what Perry calls the “curving road” of the human heart. Ultimately, Perry’s brave voice seems less interested in perfection than in capturing the imaginations and empathy of would-be sojourners along this road. As she queries in one of her opening poems, “Otherwise wouldn’t that journey be lonely?” Immersed in Beauty/Beauty’s unpretentious tone and curious eye for the wondrous and peculiar, I felt more than willing to enter into its whimsical, imperfect, yet haunting journeys. As the critical acclaim of this collection suggests, many more readers will likely find themselves becoming eager sojourners as well.
Alexa Winik grew up in the Canadian border city of Windsor, Ontario before attending a small liberal arts university in the middle of Ohio’s cornfields. Since graduating with a BA in English literature, she has worked as a barista and an editor at a nonprofit in Michigan, and is currently pursuing an MLitt in Women, Writing and Gender at the University of St. Andrews. Despite living as an expat for seven years, she still thinks the most beautiful place in the world is Clearwater Lake in northwestern Ontario.