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Lynn Levin: ‘Masquerade’ by Carolyne Wright


By Carolyne Wright

Lost Horse Press, October 2021

In her new poetry collection, Carolyne Wright recounts a love affair between two poets—he African-American, she white—from its rapturous beginning to its shattering end. Wright gifts us with that rarity in verse: a page turner. Reading the memoir, one senses from the very start that the relationship, fertile and thrilling though it be, is doomed. And yet the reader, at least this reader, is pulled by the erotics, the atmospherics, the jazz, and the question “what will happen next?” as the narrative arc built of lyrics and narratives surges on. 

Masquerade is Carolyne Wright’s seventh full-length collection of poems. Well known as a poet, anthologist, and translator from the Bengali and Spanish, Wright, a native of Seattle, is the recipient of many honors, among them a Pushcart Prize, numerous grants and fellowships, including a Fulbright. 

This love story, recounted in the first-person from the point of view of the white female poet, takes place in early 1980s America, a time of long-distance phone calls and typewriters. Wright recently told me that Masquerade is the “most important book, personally and politically, that I have completed, in terms of the larger socio-political issues that it confronts in microcosm, in the relationship between the couple.” Although the events in the memoir took place during the eighties, Wright explains why it took until 2021 to complete and publish the work. “It was a dozen years after the relationship ended that the ‘mantle,’ as it called itself, descended upon me: the bolt-of-lightning idea for a lyric-narrative sequence, a memoir in poetry about this relationship, along with the charge to write it….I worked on the sequence for another two dozen years, while finishing and publishing other books, before I was ready for it to appear. I was in no hurry to finish it—I was waiting for the right time. What signaled the right time? That is another whole narrative!”

The memoir spans the poets’ first meeting at an artists’ colony on Cape Cod to New Orleans, where the steamy climate heats the lovers’ passion but also cooks up a heap of trouble that brings everything to a boil. In between, the poems trace the lovers’ travels and the literary speaker’s professional life of teaching, which entailed “a lot of moving from city to city and through rural areas of this country….Not a lot of sitting still in those years of short-term jobs and grants, month-to-month rental agreements, and a lot of existential uncertainty!”

The lovers’ bodies are on fire. The sex is mind-blowing. See “Aubade: Still Life” and “Round: Midnight.” Later in the collection, even as the relationship falters, the speaker, in “After Summer Gives Itself Away,” still recalls how “All night, your hands glide over me, dark searchlights across an ivory field.” 

The lovers ignite each other’s bodies and minds. Their relationship electrifies Wright’s language. These poems crackle with bold sensory detail, witty word play, and charged bits of dialogue. Some poems are in free verse. Others display the poet’s formal virtuosity. 

Flirting and falling in love, the new-met lovers stroll along a Cape Cod beach. In “’Hello World,’” they:

…riff lines 

into gull-crazy air, calls and responses

     daring their way forward: one rope

looped to another, late sun in our eyes

     a lingering brilliance. Brainstorms

I scrawl onto old envelopes—

     who can tell which lines are yours,

which mine?…

Note here the air-borne movement of the lines and their sailing rhythms, which are enhanced by aerial imagery—the seagulls and the references to the improvisational exchange of wit as the two poets inspire each other and compose on the fly. 

By and by, the lovers move to New Orleans, the setting for most of the poems. Wright brings that steamy city alive as she describes its off-beat characters, café society, jazz clubs, foliage, Mardi Gras moments, and their narrow shot gun house on Piety Street. One of the infamous French Quarter characters is Ruthie the Duck Lady, whom Wright captures “Endecasyllabics: About the Women (Ruthie)” reprinted here.

Race is ever present in the poems. As the white female lover of a Black man, the literary speaker bears the sting of bigotry, either outright or through snide remarks. As ally and anti-racist (to use contemporary terms), the speaker is always aware of the shameful legacy of America’s past. In “Heat Wave: Liberty, Missouri,” the speaker, then a visiting professor at a college in the Ozarks, states that “I’m part / of all that’s wrong with America.” To give readers a clue to the time period, the speaker notes that her observations are taking place exactly two decades after Selma’s Bloody Sunday of 1965: 

Twenty years to the day

from Selma. Twenty years from the hoses,

dogs, the demonstrators lying in rows

in the squad cars’ shadows.

The reflections may date from 1985, but the plague of racism continues.

The love between the two poets is doomed, not so much because of race, but because of the man’s infidelity, his habit of taking financial advantage of the speaker, his attempted sabotage of the woman’s works in progress, and finally his physical abuse. The literary sabotage, is a passive-aggressive act in which the lover, named Roy in the poems, wads up some of the woman’s drafts and throws them in the trash. She discovers her pages in the waste can and retaliates by tearing one of his pages in half in front of him. Then it’s his fist to her head: the violent death blow to a relationship that has deteriorated beyond repair. 

But there is always the beauty of Wright’s language. The speaker says, “my fear // is a tinfoil phoenix whose wings / flare across our years together.” The lovers’ tongues are “coral adders.” The couple is pulled into “blue-shadowed labyrinths of desire.” Time and again, sex wins over the doubts, the insults, the infidelities, “You enter me, / and I empty my thighs of wisdom.”  Yet there is a point at which sex loses its power to make up for the hurt. 

No review of Masquerade could be complete without a mention of Wright’s formal skill. In addition to her compelling free verse lyrics and narratives, she gifts us with pantoums, triolets, endecasyllabics (poems with eleven-syllable lines), a sestina, a canzone, ghazals, and, one of my favorites, a round. The round is evidently a form of the poet’s own devising as I could not find the term in any of the many poetics manuals I consulted. Wright’s round is a stanzaic form in which various lines repeat with variation through the poem but without the prescribed regularity of other repeating forms. Toward the end of the collection, Wright includes, for good measure, a few poems in experimental verse. Taken as a whole, this brave and candid memoir in verse delights as much as it disturbs.

A poet, writer, translator, and teacher, Lynn Levin has published five collections of poems, most recently The Minor Virtues (Ragged Sky, 2020), named one of Spring 2020’s best books by The Philadelphia Inquirer. She teaches at Drexel University.

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