The Only Blooming Thing
by John Johnson
Transformer, Kathleen Winter, The Word Works, Washington DC, 2020, 90 pages, $18.00 paperback, www.wordworksbooks.org.
BECAUSE KATHLEEN WINTER is a friend, I knew I couldn't write a review of Transformer that was entirely objective. But then I realized: no man can. Any man, if he is honest, will find himself in its pages, will see that he is among the book's subjects.
The first section begins with an epigraph by Larry Levis, in which he warns that "the nicest guy in the world" carries a switchblade. Sure enough, the first poem is about a guy who's searching for a woman he's kicked, probably his girlfriend, while she hides in a closet. What makes this story unusual—unfortunately, violence against women isn't unusual—is the poet's perspective on the man. She doesn't mention his anger, his rage. She goes deeper. "…Is it possible he was frightened / he might kill you?" Unable to find her, he suddenly turns: it is his fear that "spins him around." The woman is not afraid, and though she is "breathless," her "ears, eyes / are accurate, are sharp and clear." The poem ends: "…Three flights up / he sprints but you just need to gain one floor to leave. / You just need one story / and it isn't his." Through the telling of this story the poet has made it her own—has transformed it. It is no longer the story of a man victimizing a woman, though it is that, too. It is the story of a woman's resourcefulness. What's more, it's the story of a poet using language to transform a terrifying experience into one of insight and survival.
There are a lot of violent and intimidating men in this collection, who harm both directly and, more insidiously, indirectly, by impairing a woman's sense of herself, one effect of which is to silence her. In "Bystanders," one of the many poems in which a knife appears, a man dispatches one wife after another, women between whom "No word flew… / —no omen." If only they'd spoken, they might have warned one another. They were, so to speak, bystanders in their own lives, "shadowed in the wake of him."
In the poem "Fevers," a girl is accused of enticing a boy to behave badly. "Did you do something / to make him lick your desk?" Not that licking a desk or other displays of adolescent sexuality are inherently bad. After all, the girl is driven to distraction by "Pear trees' wild blossom." And "Asparagus… / …phallic, // aphrodisiac, [is] perennially pleasing" —but only when shared with "the person (or persons) / whose desk you have chosen." Men's uninvited gestures toward women begin early.
What else begins early is a woman's power to transform. In "Cambridge Elementary," the girls place dill pickles between their retainers and palates, "…green translucent / promises to be born into / something else again," which they suck on, secretly, for hours.
You might worry that poems like these would preclude poems about men doing well by women. Importantly, the book is dedicated to Kathleen's brother, a man she loves and admires. In "A Trait of Certain Ambassadors," we see the poet and her father "amid the beeping of IVs my dad's / strained breathing." Father and daughter "…pause / for a moment, together, to grieve" the "caged life" of a bonobo they've been reading about, one that's been trained to communicate with humans. In "City Eye Elegy," one of my favorites for its musicality—so many of Kathleen Winter's poems seem to dance through dictionaries, encyclopedias, quick-witted, light on their feet—we find fathers and daughters again, this time in the form of "…strange pairs of whales / migrating." Men appear in other poems, too, in loving, supportive relationship with the poet.
The last poem in the book, "the porch roof's sky-blue ceiling," returns us to fear: "fear of little breaches… / through which seeps the soul's red light // fear of trivial experience, waste of the unknown / quantity of summer nights." One way to read this poem is as an affirmation of self. "I trapped myself in wariness," the poet tells us, "housing / contingency in an anxious eye," an "eye" that is both outlook and the "I" of identity. What she struggles to reveal— "…why / won't I say it" —is that the key to a new identity, a new house, or maybe the old house transformed, "is hidden always someplace // terribly obvious // under the only blooming thing on the front porch." This transformation of outlook—identity, self—has everything to do with how one sees oneself, "this wink in the mind's smoky mirror." And the "key" to an excess of wariness, the fear and distrust that can lead to self-censoring and silence, is found in the final line of the poem: "…love of the first person passing." That is, the first person singular, the person we mean when we say "I," the self that passes before us.
I hope everyone reads Transformer, women and (especially) men.
John Johnson's poems, translations and other writings have appeared in many print and online journals, including Beyond Baroque, Chaparral, Clade Song, frankmatter, The Inflectionist Review, The New Black Bart Poetry Society, OVS Magazine, Triggerfish Critical Review, The Turnip Truck(s), Verse Wisconsin, and Web Conjunctions. He is co-translator, with Nancy J. Morales and Terry Ehret, of Plagios/Plagiarisms, the poetry of Ulalume González de León, published by Sixteen Rivers Press.