Book Review: GUINEVERE IN BALTIMORE by Shelley Puhak
|Guinevere in Baltimore
Poems by Shelley Puhak
|The Waywiser Press, 2013
“How we are never more alone
than in love…”
Winter is perhaps the best season to read an ode to failed romance, especially one with a compelling conceit. By engaging clever language alongside Arthurian characters transported to contemporary Baltimore, Shelley Puhak takes a subject often badly written and turns it into poetic gold. Structured as a play told in individual poems, Guinevere in Baltimore builds slowly and quietly as we get to know the characters whose stories will culminate in an explosive ending.
As in any good drama, hints of the final scenes are built into the opening poem. “On Having Sex, Grief-Stricken” presents an unknown female speaker addressing her lover.
I straddle you, sobbing.
I’m stunned our bodies
can still screw
together, the threads
can catch: what has
steeled in you winding
up into my wooden.
This union of wood and steel hardly seems sensual, and it serves as a warning: every passion dies. By the collection’s end, each couple will stand helpless as their love goes lackluster and the decision must be made to flee or stay the course. A later poem, “The Court Troubadour’s Song for the Old Streetcar Track,” echoes these sentiments:
Whatever we have meant—
you and me—before asphalt and machinery
intervened, the stars are still cross with us…
… I can’t
slip into your spaces; you will never
fill my dark fissures. I am crossed with you.
The streetcar track: once vibrant, now obsolete. It stands as a powerful metaphor for two lovers whose lives intersect only briefly, crossing paths once with a spark before rushing headlong to separate destinations. Whatever else is at play in this futile affair, the hand of fate is apparent—those stars, still cross, foretelling the inevitable end.
At its heart, the story we’re told is also one of the strength of women. Puhak adorns all her big players with a series of even bigger motifs—destructive flood and fire, expansive forests, outer space—but this play privileges its leading ladies. In the cast list, Guinevere is the queen and Arthur her husband. Elaine of Corbenic, before any of her typical feminine roles, is “alternately, of Chicago.” Even the unnamed Speaker is painted as “neither Maid, Wife nor Widow, yet really all, and therefore experienced to defend all.” As in the old stories, Guinevere and Elaine vie for Lancelot and all of the men act like playboys. But even with an imperfect cast, the bulk of the story is told with a clear feminine voice.
This is especially apparent in Lancelot and Guinevere’s closing statements. Lancelot writes to his lover from Philadelphia, saying
and I’m tired, Ginny, oh so very tired,
and even here in Clark Park, I see plums
piled in the trough of a housemaid’s apron,
pesticide-free plums bursting into flame
in colors not yet charted, but always the same
shade as the underside of your tongue.
He’s caught, eternally nostalgic, marking time and his surroundings by the ways they remind him of Guinevere. The queen, on the other hand, chooses to address her unborn children. “I carry the gene that makes / one susceptible to rain,” she tells them in apology. Her incisive words make clear that Guinevere is the book’s most aware character. She indicts the patriarchy, proclaiming, “And the wound that won’t heal: women. / The story they keep telling: // that I am waiting to be sought.” But by the poem’s end, she’s redeemed her own voice and the unlived lives of these children, building a world in which women are valiantly recast as the new cartographers. Love lost or otherwise, it’s clear that Guinevere will survive and thrive:
They say the moon borrows its brilliance,
offers no light of its own. They say my river
runs soft, runs softly. Keep clinging to its bank,
my sweets. When I make my own map
of the world, I’ll sketch this shore, your pebbled
forms, in ochre and animal blood.