Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Even Years of Marriage by Ash Bowen
(Dream Horse Press, 2014) 

reviewed by William Neumire

Ash Bowen’s debut collection, The Even Years of Marriage (winner of the 2012 Orphic Book Prize), charts the dissolution of relationships just as it charts the disillusionment of the speakers in these finely wrought, tightly woven poems. 

Every sound is intimately intended for another, the harmony almost at odds with the disconnected characters who weakly try to solder relationships, as in “Mexico’s Waters Are Only for Newlyweds,” from which the title comes:

    An affair every even year of marriage and this is another
    makeshift reconciliation—mojitos and a week of beach

    we’ve charged to our credit card: penance
    of the easiest order […]
                                 [ . . . ] Twenty years of marriage—
my lust’s no longer monstrous, your sarong has little left
to hide.

These sonnets, villanelles, and nonce forms are dense thickets of iambic sound, like pomegranate seeds of rhythm that convey anxiety for the loose, unruly lives described. The structures and strictures of these poems are arbitrary rules to anchor the unsettled worlds of their characters—characters who can’t depend on marriage or parents or siblings to steady them.

The book proceeds in three sections: the first details the unraveling of the speaker’s marriage; the second and third branch out and back to the speaker’s parents’ unsteady marriage and stories of the sister’s sexual misadventures and other menacing episodes. All of it is built through metaphors of space, physics, and 50s sci-fi movies, as if those were all systems of arbitrary rules, too, and could keep the chaos from overwhelming reality.

Bowen wields an array of tricks to create pauses, lacunae in which one can ponder, reconsider, recalculate. He employs white space particularly well to this effect, a fitting technique in a book so fraught with issues of separation and divorce:

                                                            stars collapsed
through the atmosphere

They threw their light between us

as I made a wish for you
to love me and you did


A sense of nostalgia pervades these poems, a struggle to believe in a world where things still work, where the wedding day smiles and expectations last. Bowen draws from metaphors of old, often sci-fi, movies in this regard; movies that can be rerun ad infinitum to continue to show the way things should have been/were in some more fictional, romanticized past. Meanwhile, space gives the poet a metaphor through which to convey the cold distance that inhabits so many of these poems of failed marriage and failed attempts to have children that result in disillusioned reevaluations of other relationships. While the space metaphors provide fertile ground for illuminating topics of distance and ache, they also register a note of larger universality:

The night you went away
                                    the interstate glowed red beneath the flaring
                                                fins of your father’s Cadillac.

Now this collect call
                                    from outer space & what you’ve called to say
                                                is clear at last: Among stars

lovers come and go easy as you please. It’s the gravity
of earth that makes letting go so hard.

The idiom “to be expecting” doesn’t appear in this book, but a motif of unrealized expectations does, and often it is overtly in the form of trying to have children, the mechanized drudgery of working to get pregnant:

                                                                        You, from whom

all paternity proceeds, it’s on nights like these
I try to hide, creep farther across the beams
whenever she calls for me.  God,

how I fear the grisly machinery inside of her—
blood in the spokes, miswelded DNA, another
month of trying.

There’s a more sinister, even monstrous, quality to the poems in the second section, poems that portray the females in the narrator’s life as whorish, abused, hurt:

                                                Once my sister

did pirouettes through the city park
saying, I’m a leaf blown by a twister.
Four years later, she boarded a train

with a man who turned her head
six times against the edge of a knife.

Ultimately, this section positions the speaker as an inheritor cursed with an inability to escape the failed relationships of his family’s past, as well as the inherent separateness of his species. In a way, the speaker becomes his jealous father. These poems are creepy yet engaging: morbid, menacing, corset-like. These are characters in jeopardy surrounded by a society that loves the gory details of their sordid stories. And it would be easy to write these poems as judgments, but that’s not what happens; Bowen is skilled at switching points of view, and adapts well to new characters, creating pathos, wisdom, and universality, even when adapting the first person. These often come across as poems of invasion, as in these lines from ‘Stork:’

Tonight I am looking for you
to reclaim your fine down, to break

the windows of sleeping men
hoarding your plumes in their pillows.

Your ghost is circling the city. I am
looking for you like an expectant falconer,

my arm raised against the sky.
Admittedly, the poems sometimes are too honed in on one conceit without enough discursion, diversion or surprise for a reader of contemporary poetry that has so exploded with the cult of surprise. But there’s something nostalgic and comforting in the very way Bowen’s rhythms carry the reader back, soothe the reader with songs even as they recount such haunting stories.

In the end, this is a fine debut, one that welds sound and story into a moment that examines anxieties about our ability and inability, to be together, to damage each other, to keep going while constantly looking back. It’s a smooth read that offers pleasure on the level of each poem as well as pleasure on the level of following characters through dark, narrative tunnels. It deserves reading and listening as it connects to its readers in an abstract salve against its own anxieties.

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