Tinderbox Lawn by Carol Guess
(Rose Metal Press, Brookline, Mass., 2008)
Carol Guess's stunning new collection of prose poems, Tinderbox Lawn, uses daily objects as a point of entry to questions about love, oppression, and gender identity. Presented as an extended sequence, the book challenges our notion of domesticity as stifling for women, presenting it instead as a privileged arrangement that proves unattainable for marginalized social groups. As the work unfolds, Guess offers a subtle critique of contemporary feminist writings on relationships in poems that prove as finely crafted as they are theoretically astute.
With that said, Guess often pairs novelistic techniques with poetic ones, creating a narrative structure that proves as subversive as the book's subject matter. This graceful matching of form and content proves to be one of the great strengths of the collection. Guess writes, for example, in an untitled piece,
You were the only woman in a workplace of men. Every morning you put on a dress and drove off. When you left the house you wore your ring on a chain, but at night you came home with a married girl's finger. On the walls of your cubicle: photos of your brother so you wouldn't have to tell all those men about me. (7)
Guess presents this passage alongside other vignettes depicting both romance the constant threat of violence against the GLBT community. By creating this sort of elliptical narrative, the poet subtly challenges hegemonic cultural practices, as well as the literary conventions that often promote and romanticize them.
As the sequence progresses through such associative logic, the short prose pieces illuminate and complicate one another, the end result being a multifaceted, gem-like narrative that lends itself to multiple careful readings. Consider this untitled piece,
When someone used bleach it stayed in the washer. Laundry detergent smelled like birthday cake flowers. Damp clothes spelled HELP on the linoleum floor. (9)
By placing this excerpt amidst images of escape, violence, and fear, Guess suggests that for many marginalized groups, hegemonic practices outside the home often disrupt domestic life. These provocative juxtapositions of individual prose works allow multiple interpretations to coexist gracefully within the same narrative space.
All points considered, Carol Guess's Tinderbox Lawn is a stunning collection. Ideal for readers interested in literary theory and gender studies as well as poetry, this book is a must-read.
Kristina Marie Darling is the author of Night Songs (Gold Wake Press, 2010) and the editor of narrative (dis)continuities: prose experiments by younger american writers (VOX Press, forthcoming). Her poetry criticism appears in The Gettysburg Review, The Boston Review, The Colorado Review, New Letters, and other journals. She has been awarded fellowships and grants from the Vermont Studio Center, the Ragdale Foundation, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.