God Damsel by Reb Livingston
(No Tell Books, Reston, VA, 2010)
The first few times I read God Damsel I got stoppered up against what I saw as symbols and word play. I knew there was a depth to the book but my limitations didn't allow me to find it. I'd read a few poems then wait a month, then read a few more. I am a slow reader of poetry but when it's poetry by a writer I know and trust, I'll take the time to allow a book to work on me. The last time I read God Damsel it made me weep. I originally read this book as a kind of Tarot reading and I'm still not entirely convinced that this interpretation is untrue. There are the obvious Major Arcana:
The God Damsel
The Holy Gigolo
The God Shameman
There is the odd look of the poems—formal, like hymns or Biblical passages but the narrator, the I of these poems, the God Damsel, is slippery. She weaves in and out. She lives in different parts of the body; the womb, the gut, the brain, the mouth, the eyes.
Do not be at ease, for I will mislead you: I will beam with
one and sweep with the other, for I have two detached
Like all mothers, God Damsel has eyes in the back of her head and other places as well. This is a woman with power. This is a sexual, strong voice and believe me, you don't want to fuck with her.
Spell for Ceasing the Pandering to the Daybroken Spiral
O sallow-hued beam who forflakes by supine rod and
who limps on the slack, I will not be slack for you, I
will not suture to you, your blood shall not brine into
mine, for mine embered and calls herself Sea-Slag. If I
am not slack for you, sucking coal from you, your blood
shall not brine into mine. I am once upon a moancroak,
my patronage comes from the torsos of minnows, the
inception of Czarina who submerged into Sultana who
emerged from Damsel who dined with Apron who served
Woe-dodo. I am She who was snatched by the Ostrich-
Goose and clogtied into Bombshell by Harpy; I have
moonwoke, I am the slighted Prophetess of GOURD, I
am shroud-green and gloss!
The above poem is a kind of Genesis, some begets you could say, and possibly a key to the tale of God Damsel though it appears fairly late in the book. This book, this story, is an ancient one. Woman takes a lover and things go well and then things go horribly awry. There is hot blood and spilled blood. There is revenge and spurning and hurt and deep play. Livingston didn't pull any punches in these poems. There are love poems and hate poems and warnings and gasps and wicked funny raunchiness. The narrator lives in Tabernacleville which completely cracks me up every time I read it. I grew up there and most of us have at least driven through it at some point in our lives. It’s upright, uptight, proper, expected, moral, a place where blindness is obligatory. Damsel’s husband snores and gobbles his meals and she feels vacant and bored and trapped and perhaps a little bit unglued.
The First Chronicle of Marriage
When the afflicted meadow prevailed, but the
vestal cottage did not, when the thinking
thingamabob existed, but the hymnotic
tomato did not, when mental somersaults
reigned, but snickering laments did not, when blindness
was obligatory, but trinkets were not, when shepherding
and mewling bellowed, when kitchens had mancatchers
—I was the grandmother of middling gourds, ancestress
of the beaten squash, I was the mama and papa of
pumpkins, the cousin of misused zucchini.
The cast of characters in God Damsel are slippery. They inhabit each other at times, switch places, switch partners, switch voices and attitudes. The book is separated into sections; the Diminished Prophecies, the Litanies, the Chronicles, the Laments, the Spells, the Deaths, the Hymns, the Proverbs, the Epistle of Damsel and, finally, a remembering. Livingston's language is lush and dense, and at times I found her use of portmanteaus almost over the top; boundswell, handsmite, wailhouse, dayache, faithfulwaste. It is almost as though she doesn't trust the power of her own language and she should. It is remarkable. Her lexicon is ripe and inventive, solid and spinning, and Livingston is the perfect guide for a book that takes the reader through portal after portal.
God Damsel is written with honest love—love for the human condition, love of language, for wordplay and compassion. It is a fairytale, an enchanted forest, a meadow, but be warned. This is no Disney tale. Dangers and raw emotion abound, butchers, fetishes, boredom, rage. Read it with one eye closed and everything changes tips like a Victorian optical illusion. As I was writing this, just now, unfortunately in Blogger, I lost half the review when I tried to save it, and now I have switched to Word, and I was looking for a poem I had typed before and I said, Did I hamstring the fucking butcher? and realized that even inside this review I had come under the spell of Livingston’s writing and ahh, thank goodness, here it is.
The Shepherd of GOURD 1:1
The Fishyman, who cast me, hawked me to one
Damsel in Tabernacleville. Grinded,
breathy, I whetted her, amen, yearned for
her as a butcher.
I am thankful for the dense short lines of these poems, which lend them the feeling of hymns or proverbs or even perhaps a primer for those of us more earth-bound. There is tremendous strength here. When I read these poems I get a tightness in my chest, the heart place. These poems ache. There is no fluff here, there are no filler or bridge poems in this collection. The cover and inside artwork by Mary Behm-Steinberg perfectly accompanies these splendid off kilter heartbreaking poems. God Damsel is a ladder. Climb it if you dare and have a look at the view. If you dare.
My GOURD will refill them, because they snickered and
hindered; they will waddle nameless among the stumps.
Rebecca Loudon lives and writes in Seattle. Her most recent collection of poetry is Cadaver Dogs (No Tell Books.) She maintains a blog at http://radishking.blogspot.com. She is a professional musician and teaches violin lessons to children.