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'Bodies That Hum' by Beth Gylys
Promising first volume reveals poet in a playful mood
Sunday, August 15, 1999
By Michael Schneider
In the movie “Shakespeare in Love,” the queen complains that when it comes to writing about love, the poets make things too pretty, and she offers a cash prize to any poet who can get it right.
In this debut collection from poet Beth Gylys (pronounced “Gillis’), we get poetry written as if in response to this wager. The result, however, is a different universe altogether from the star-crossed passions of “Romeo and Juliet.” For example:
Ned loved Betsy, a blond waitress who lived in the suburbs. Only Betsy was in love with Peter, the race car mechanic, who had muscles and a black Corvette and wore a cross inside his T-shirt. But Peter was half-crazy over Anne, his beautiful ex-lover, who said, “You’re nothing but a loser.” Anne had left him to marry Chet, the insurance salesman, who was boring in bed but who was climbing hand over hand up the corporate ladder (“Pursuit of Happiness”).
Gylys grew up in Peters Township and teaches writing at Mercyhurst College in Erie. She’s a young poet (meaning under 40) published in some of the country’s most prestigious literary journals, including “The Paris Review” and “Ploughshares.”
Last month, Garrison Keillor read Gylys’ “Erratic Gardener” on his public radio show, “A Prairie Home Companion.”
In her latest collection, the subject is the interplay between the sexes and the travails of intimate relationships.
From the start, we know we’re in the 1990s, where you look for love in personal ads; relationships are bargains and exchanges; and expectations get you in trouble every time. The first poem, “Fat Chance,” sets the tone:
“Every day another broken heart/We try, but fail, to find our perfect match./ We’d never get involved if we were smart.”
Most of us aren’t that smart, as Gylys knows; we’re driven by desire. Time and again, she shows us as sexual beings. Like a number of her poems, “Success” is a quirky story in verse, this one about a man who leaves his wife, who has become “the maid from hell.” Before long, every woman he knows looks attractive but is “married, or engaged, or gay.”
He reconsiders: but now, thinking of his wife, her slender body leaning into the closet to put away his coat, her face flushed as she pushed the vacuum over clean carpet, made him horny and forgiving. “Maybe I was insensitive,” he thought.
Gylys often shows men as self-deluded fools for love, incapable of clearly stating what they feel. Her voice is hard, witty, amused at folly and pretense. To this male reader, it’s somewhat disconcerting to find a woman coming this close to the bone. And yet we feel that this poet loves men at the same time as she sees through them:
“She watches men -- the way they move, their shirts./ There’s something good in every one she’s found” (from “The Erratic Gardener”).
Sex is a frequent topic, with frank language. There’s a lusty edge that’s closer to the way people talk and joke about sex than we usually find in poetry, unless you go back to Chaucer and Boccaccio.
A striking aspect of Gylys’ work is her formal virtuosity. Villanelles and sestinas are ancient, some would say antique, forms in which words and lines repeat according to strict rules. Remarkably, Gylys has written 40 villanelles, 14 of which are included here.
One of the better known poems of this century is Dylan Thomas’ villanelle about his dying father, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” Gylys’ colloquial diction and sense of humor subvert the expectation of rhetorical grandeur that, since Thomas, is part of this form -- as in “Marriage Song,” which in 19 chastening lines (a villanelle is five tercets and a concluding quatrain) takes us through an affair and broken marriage:
He saw this woman at the skating rink,
watching their sons play hockey from the stands.
He fought the urge to ask her for a drink.
She wore those stretchy pants, a long faux mink,
slid next to him and said, “Hi. my name’s Nance,”
He warned her right there. He couldn’t think.
Along with fables recounted from a third-person perspective, there’s a first-person narrative running through several sections of the book: the story of a woman whose marriage broke up, who had an affair with a married man, who’s single again, beset with longing and loneliness. This voice struggles to express her experience in crafted language and wants to provoke the rest of us to think about “the ways humans mess up loving.”
Sometimes Gylys’ playful style verges toward cleverness, a poetic Seinfeld. Occasionally, she goes straight for the heart, and it doesn’t quite work; we miss her playfulness. But these are quibbles. There’s a distinctive voice here, a poet whose next book I look forward to with pleasure.
Michael Schneider is a writer and poet who lives in Edgewood.
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