There is a great variety when it comes to chapbooks. I’m not talking just about the inevitable range of quality between them, but in terms of why they exist. A few of the more common reasons are (not necessarily mutually exclusive):
1. The author is a regular on some poetry scene and puts one out, generally self-published, in order to have something to sell at readings.
2. The author is a good poet but not particularly interested in the military campaign that is getting to the first book. The chapbook stands in lieu of a book in this case.
3. The author “shows promise”, but somehow just isn’t quite ready for a full-lengther. The chapbook offers practice in how to assemble and promote the thing.
4. The author, being fairly well-established, is using the chapbook for a group of poems (or maybe a longer poem and sequence) that doesn’t quite fit in with the previous or next collection.
5. An accomplished author, established or “emerging”, uses a chapbook as a sort of “sneak preview” of a coming book. In the case of the “emerging” writer, it’s a sort of promissory note of what’s to come until the powers that be cop on to how great he or she is.
And Anna Evans falls into this last category. A recipient of an MFA from Bennington, on the editorial board of The Raintown Review, editor of The Barefoot Muse, and a frequent contributor to well-reputed literary journals, Evans is in that strange limbo where you’re by no means unknown, but just haven’t gotten the collection out. And until she wins a major contest or some editor gets wise to her work, we have Swimming (Maverick Duck Press, 2006).
When one is a poet living in a major urban area, is single, drinks a lot, smokes a lot, and has a personal life marked by a degree of instability, one tends to have a certain rant, with individual variations. Namely, that these self-satisfied suburbanites with their fancy gardens and big cars with GPS systems and kids and careers sure do write some boring-ass poetry. And in many cases, this is true. Of course, anyone who has ever been subjected to some restraining order waiting to happen “keeping it real” at a New York City open mic can attest that “living on the edge” in the big city is hardly a guarantee one will be any good, either.
I raise this because Anna Evans’s poems are very much poems of the suburbs, though with, perhaps, a glimpse back to the city and to single life. This is most noticeable in her poem, “The Lal Jomi”, about an Indian restaurant she and her husband used to frequent “…before the children thinned your hair/and thickened me”, in which the narrator recalls headier days of closing down the pub and filling up on tikka and shish kebab. The poem ends on a rueful note:
“Oh love, remember when the meal was done
how we would press the hot towels to our faces,
suck oranges, spit out the pips for fun,
and split, so keen for bed we’d always run?
These days we dine in ritzy four star places
but love, you know I really miss that one.”
Nostalgic? Sure, but a poet should be allowed nostalgic moments, especially when a sense of place is so thoroughly evoked, the taste of “…coriander, pungent spice/burning on our tongues like the advice/ we swapped in drunken voices”. And most of Evans’s poems are not set in her youth, but in her suburban present.
And by and large they work. The opening poem, a free-verse lyric, called “The Lap Swimmer”, probably spends a bit too much time negotiating a fairly straightforward trope, and then there’s “Suburban Housewives In Their Forties”, about women sipping wine, watching their kids, tending their gardens, and realizing that they “are emptying/our minds; all of us have given up/visions of freelance photography…” and let’s hop to the end:
“We meet at the house with the screen
porch, bringing bottles of Pinot
and Chardonnay. Filling glasses
with pale yellow liquid, we see
right through ourselves as we empty them.”
Which is, of course, a boffo final image, but here, as, on occasion, elsewhere, one wonders if the poem is taking a drink or the drink taking the poem. The periodic sense of suburban ennui, through Evans’s very success at evoking it, teeters on becoming a bit overpowering in places.
However, any such tendencies in the chapbook (and they are far from overwhelming) are balanced by a surprising number of erotic poems. And they aren’t the sort of erotic poems one’s afraid of (alternately lineated porn or so elliptical that one has to ask, “That’s about fucking, right?”). Let me quote “Understandings” in full:
“When his fingers sneak
over my skin, tweak a nipple,
I offer no more resistance
than the curve of my back,
the splay of my shoulders.
Then, with the oldest women’s
movement–I turn and let him in.
“Inside me dwells a Parisienne
from the last War–welcoming,
but full of tricks. I concentrate
on that spot in the parking lot
where I first orgasmed, or the front row
of the porn movie I pretended
to watch for the plot.
“Eyes closed in the dark,
I make believe I am getting
what I want, give back
what it takes to satisfy him
that he has a dutiful wife. He pays
the bills, doesn’t ask how I spend
the rest of my life.”
And this poem plays to one of Evans’s strengths–she is very good at conveying coping, making do, not as an act of cowardice, but as an act of necessity. Because her narrators like the man about the house. They like their neighbors and kids. They recognize that life can be boring or disappointing, but they get on with it. And in that sense, the book is rather more optimistic than it might appear.
Now I feel almost churlish making this last point, but I feel it must be said. “Chapbook” need not mean “low production values”. A grainy design on the cover, cheap paper, an ugly font, and a lack of an ISBN number work against the author. Desktop publishing has gotten to a level where one can come out with something that looks quite good even with pretty basic software. For all its smaller size and the saddle-stapled binding, a chapbook is a book–a collection with an author’s name on the front and often an author’s first, and production is a key part of that.
But whatever the problems with presentation, these are poems well worth reading by a poet who will be going places, even if she remains beside the pool in her New Jersey suburb. And I hope the water’s at a good temperature and isn’t overchlorinated.
*A personal disclosure–I’ve been reviewed by Anna, have had poems in both journals with which she is involved editorially, and I know her in person. So sue me.