Confused by gods and jobs
Discount Fireworks by Wendy Taylor Carlisle
reviewed by Remy Wilkins
Wendy Taylor Carlisle renders her rusticity mystically, without an air of superiority for having left it nor a smugness over the down-homey-ness, that obnoxious pride in the “I is what I is” in some Southern poetry. She says in one poem “What’s basic in me favors drawl,” but this does not hinder her from Eve and Edward Murrow, Oenone and Anna Karenina, but she blends them with gin, chiggers and the local greasy spoon. This gives her at once a lexicon of the ordinary and the mythical. A one night stand becomes a trip to Oz (“After, Dorothy”) or the recovery from a failed romance is a Herculean task (“Fifth Labor”).
There’s also something exuberantly juvenile about her poetry. Not immature, but full of childlike wonder and teenage romance; she evokes both the nostalgia of summers, bikes, and boyfriends along with the dread and insecurities of growing up.
O, the long kickstand evenings, the white plastic fringes.
O, the pinstripes, the bells, the chrome handlebars.
In the poem “Bloodthirsty” she embodies this inbetween state of adolescence by describing a summer in which she and a friend biked the town, shoplifting, then capgunning the “well–/ groomed Judys on the playground,” in playful murder before ending their childish mayhem in the dark movie theatre where they could “neck” with the country boys (melding the erotic and vampiric). The subtext is the audacity of two girls bucking primness by toting pistols and, as any good southerner would know, that making out in back of the theatre will, in the words of church ladies in wide brimmed hats, come to no good. Another summer is described as ending in “a rainstorm, in a double-cross, in a low-wattage grin” (from “Summer Romance”).
The surprising element is a quiet patriotism in the background of the book. Not the bland sort of July 4th patriotism, but a deeper loyalty that stands against the beloved country, that isn’t afraid to expose the ugliness, its school shootings, its atom bombs. In the title poem “Discount Fireworks” we see just this balance of critical patriotism; a subtle dig, dis-count fireworks, cheap admiration but it is mixed with wonder. Consider the double edged conclusion:
Who could avoid an explosion
or resist drawing nearer and nearer the fire, exclaiming
oh and oh and ahhhhhh!
Just beneath the surface this is a surprisingly complex book; Southern in the best sense, compassionate and complex, and rich in celebration.