The Bedside Guide to No Tell Motel: Second Floor Edited by Reb Livingston & Molly Arden
(No Tell Books, 2007)
When I first received this anthology the title led me to expect all that one would associate with motels: a multiplicity of voices, the transient, the hipster desire for all things retro and kitschy, the touristic, the voyeuristic, the taboo, the pedestrian décor, and even the lurid. Editors Reb Livingston and Molly Arden wisely anticipated this response, asking the reader to question the difference between the vulgar and the salacious. Livingston adds a disclaimer in bold print: “This is not a collection of dirty ditties.” Instead, the collection is about “What we desire, what we crave, what turns us on…what we find appealing, our own private sexy.” There is no way to put this book down with indifference after reading the introduction. The moment you begin, you’re obligated to consider your ideas about poetry.
The first poem, like a handful of others included here, seem to struggle with the limitations imposed on them by their short forms. They rely on the mantra “brevity is the soul of wit”. Consider Nicole Steinberg’s “Fortune”:
If a girl tells you to eat something
off her tits, you’d better do it.
Even if it’s sardines, you will do it.
Using a cheeky bon mot as the opening for the book is a provocative move. You could be immediately drawn or put off, intrigued, skeptical, or hopeful of the poems to follow. There is always the danger of easy dismissal, just as there are bound to be nods of approval amongst those who appreciate sass.
It’s crucial to remember, however, as with any book, that much of the response, positive or negative, will depend on the reader’s particular biases, definitions and expectations of what a poem should do, should be. Is this poetry? Is it indulgent posturing? Is it a serious commentary on the demands lovers place on one another? Does poetry have to be serious? Can it ever exist purely for the moment? Does poetry need to evoke emotional responses, to take the top of one’s head off, as it were, or is there room, too, for other kinds of poetry? These and other questions are bound to arise.
The editors haven’t chosen an “easy” poem to ease you into the experience of reading this book. Short poems tread a difficult line—in the extreme they can appear cryptic, off-the-cuff, or even unfinished, while at their best, they crystallize some truth in a fresh way, leaving you to dwell on the unspoken as much as on the words themselves.
Regardless of whether you like or dislike the opening, you’ll feel compelled to find out what the other offerings in the anthology will be. Starting with a poem that has every potential to inspire heated discussion about what constitutes poetry, a poem that could polarize an audience, may indeed be the perfect amuse boche for the poems that follow.
No Tell Motel is very much a thematic collection divided in three sections: “Anatomy of Mortals”, “Function of Senses”, and “Core of Affections”. The more expected interpretations appear, including poems using food as metaphors for the sensual, as do more surprising poems, like Robyn Art’s obsessive “Notes About His Hands”, Anne Gorrick’s “The May Garden”, Margot Schilpp’s “Declensions” and Alison Stine’s “Big Fun”. The best poems portray a facet of desire from a distance. Mary Biddinger’s “Copper Harbor” (p. 50) is one particularly noteworthy poem:
Freakish, like a tapestry.
The dark smudge of fish
shanties and smokehouses.
An orange nylon jacket
knotted on the breakwater.
We saw the people, made
change for their twenties.
The seagulls were quick
as equinox, Evinrude,
flypaper lit with a zippo.
All cabins have the same
linoleum. It’s universal.
I took prints with knees
and palms. Read your tale
of botanical swerve, flash
and fragment. Artichoke
or parsnip? The ether surge
of a mower on the parkway
slapped us out of reverie.
I asked you the sound
of fishhook through a lip.
You gave me a silver cup
and claw hammer. I woke
all night inspecting corners,
nasturtiums. Your body
an arrow into the lake.
The poem immediately appeals to the eye and ear, echoing Robert Lowell’s “Water”. Instead of Lowell’s “dozens of bleak / white frame houses stuck/ like oyster shells / on a hill of rock,” we’re given a “dark smudge of fish / shanties and smokehouses.” Like Lowell, Biddinger pairs disturbing imagery with unexpected beauty: the abandoned orange jacket, the fishhook through a lip, the claw hammer, nasturtiums, and the botanical swerve. An almost cinematic danger permeates the poem. “Copper Harbor” and other poems included in the anthology succeed when they offer clarity in their images and a degree of ambiguity—enough to invite multiple readings.
No Tell Motel includes a range, from prose poems to Gina Meyer’s eight-page “A Model Year” to lighter poems contemplating the absurd nature of the pick-up line as told through the prism of a glass slipper speaking to a fly. You may find the anthology uneven in this regard—poems using all the music and texture memorable poetry entails appear alongside poems that could seem more prosaic by comparison.
David Lehman’s “Tit Wears a Scarf” (p. 24) is another example of poems that could inspire debate. The first stanza reads “Tit wears a scarf / cock wears a hat, / Belly is flat / Ass curves phat.” The rest of the poem proceeds in a similar manner. If you don’t find the appeal, you may risk being labeled a prude or an elitisit (having already been forewarned by the editors in the introduction that there are no “dirty ditties” here). In the abstract one can appreciate how the nursery-rhyme quality emphasizes what seems to be the point—that the body and sex do not have to be revered all of the time, that the bedroom has room for hijinks—but after that, does it make for good reading?
This comes back to the question of what preconceptions readers bring with them—about the nature of poetry, its purpose, whether it needs to be this or that, according to whom, and why. You may well enjoy the eclectic mix, taking these more of-the-moment poems as a breather between pages, as an enjoyable romp, or simply as being representative of the different voices available in poetry. Whether or not the vast differences between poems detracts from the whole is something you’d have to decide for yourself. No Tell Motel is an anthology to be read for the writers that may be new to you, for the gems included, and for the conversation it inspires—it would make an excellent touchstone for group discussions, and for reflecting on your own views of poetry, whether they are reaffirmed, challenged, or changed.
Karen Rigby received a 2007 literature fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Savage Machinery, a chapbook, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press in late 2008. Her poems have been published in Black Warrior Review, FIELD, New England Review and other journals.