Arlene Weiner: Nobody’s coming to save the children
Catherine Doty, Wonderama. Cavankerry Press, Fort Lee, N.J. 2021. $18.00.
In a NY Times review of Frederick’s Seidel’s new book, Selected, Dwight Garner quotes Seidel’s poetic credo: “Write beautifully what people don’t want to hear.” Catherine Doty’s pitiless poems beautifully show us what we don’t want to see: children’s poverty, abuse, neglect. And their meanness. Poor children living in squalor, which Doty’s language often veils in lyrical glamor.
The poems’ pitilessness reminds me of Louise Gluck, but here from the point of view of a child, usually a girl: a girl of 4 (in the title poem), 8, or 16. An outcast girl, a girl molested, a girl shunned and shamed. Once, a five-year-old boy, sipping flat beer and digging through an ashtray for butts to give his mother.
Nobody’s coming to save the children in Wonderama. No teacher, no mother, redeeming church, no Children and Youth Services. There’s no repair, no redemption. And no judgment. In fact the poems often slyly reverse judgment, presenting a narrative that would normally evoke horror as magical, joyous:
Mischief made her lift her arms and turn
with such a look of wonder on her face
that I was not afraid to see the flames
licking along both sleeves of her flannel robe,
and Grandma, naked, jubilant, winked at me
or one that would evoke disgust as charming
They rest in silken nests in the crotches of trees,
until someone like you shows up with a big glass jar
and harvests them, warm handfuls of gentle pets
It’s dramatic irony: the actors are oblivious, enjoying a moment, but the reader knows what they don’t, and in this book disillusion is usually not held off for long. “Larval” continues
When you are asleep, to reciprocate your love, they squeeze
through the punctured portals in the lid, leaving luscious tufts
of their soft brown coats, and crawl to your lips,
where they spend the night kissing you.
In other poems too, the child’s obliviousness or desire for love means that she will be disillusioned or disappointed. Or in one poem, nearly raped. Her library books are stolen, her belief that the zoo lion likes her is quashed. Hope, in general, quashed. The desire for love, attention, puts the girl at risk. At least fantasy is safe. In the title poem a child “barely four,” and in the last poem, an adolescent, long in fantasy for a male figure. In “Wonderama,” the “smiling/man she wanted for herself” on TV, and in “JC and Me in the Summer of ‘64” a teenage Jesus:
Imagine, I thought, when He, too, was confused and changing, not quite
a man yet, and almost, but not quite, God. Hear me calling His name,
though He’s already heading toward me
Again and again hope turns to disappointment. In “Behind Bars” the child is told the zoo lion likes her, when it’s a chunk of horsemeat it is attracted to—horsemeat with “sparkling/ flies attendant in bright song.”
Repeatedly language fails or conceals. There’s a surface comedy of spoonerisms in “Tumbled,” where the child thinks “Dun! Dun!/Ranger!” and in the last line is “a geyser whirl.” But under the comedy, the poem is about a narrow escape from rape. There’s a tenderness with an aphasic grandmother in “What Does Not Kill Us”—but isn’t the child trying to kill her grandmother? In “Half-Day Kindergarten” the mother encrypts her language when she’s talking sex gossip over her five-year old’s head.
Just one of these poems, “Salesman,” is by an adult, an outsider, futilely leaving calling cards
a business card
rubber-stamped with the name Joe Good, which is not my name
but company code for poor.
at the foot of Garret Mountain, for
an inbred clan so sullen, so slack-jawed and squinty,
that census takers resort to ballpark figures
The judgments in this poem, the salesman’s, seem to cut across the grain of the rest of the poems, which immerse us in the small world seen by the poor children. (And it seems to be concealing its iambic nature.) Garret Mountain is not far from Paterson, New Jersey, where the teenaged girl imagines Jesus will split the falls—Hamilton’s great engine of prosperity. Did William Carlos Williams know the grandparents of this child’s grandmother? The pure products of America? The poor products of a place where little else is now produced.
Arlene Weiner is a poet and playwright who lives in Pittsburgh. Her books include City Bird(Ragged Sky Press, 2016).