Erica Dawson’s Big-Eyed Afraid

I wanted to like this book more than I do. Let me explain that. Erica Dawson’s Big-Eyed Afraid (Waywiser, 2007) should be precisely the sort of collection that would reinvigorate American metrical poetry that, with the gone but not forgotten Formalist in the background, has become–with some important exceptions–white, polite, often rather conservative, and inhabited by too many poems where Greek Goddesses discuss Petrarch’s unrequited love for Laura. She has absolute scads of talent, a different swing to her metrics than any other contemporary metrical poet I have encountered, and evidence of a clearly fruitful engagement with that strange beast called “performance poetry”. In short, there is more energy here than in the vast majority of collections–metrical or free verse–one encounters. Take the opening of “Chocolate Thunder”

I was born, Mom says, dancer-
Physiqued, lean leg or arm, or, hand
For five down low, born You the Manned,
Go Girled, and Dad’s wrong Answer

To dead ball dreams. I tore
Shit up, handled the no-look pass
And a jig. Somebody slap my ass.
Now who’s your daddy? Score.

There’s an exuberance one doesn’t see very often… unless you know where to look. And therein lies, I think, one of the great strengths–and weaknesses–of Big-Eyed Afraid. Dawson is drawing on a stream of poetry generally unknown to many “formalist” poets, mostly because they can’t be bothered to go to a few open mics in an urban area in the United States. Dawson’s skill with the demotic, at times crossed with the highly literate reference, as well as her narrators frequently calling attention to their sexiness, backgrounds, and racial history, would not be unfamiliar to aficionados of “performance poetry”. Likewise, many of her tricks in rhyming, notably her frequent rhymes in the middle of a word, would not be terribly out of place.

And so far so good. But too often, the point of Dawson’s poems is that the narrator (who seems to resemble Dawson herself as a general rule), never really gets beyond talking about herself, whether in church as a kid or in the midst of an orgasm as an adult. And while most readers would give up a kidney to have as good a body image as an Erica Dawson poem, the effect, for all the verbal ingenuity of the work, becomes a bit monotonous. While this is, I suppose, “empowering”, with the self being discovered and accepted and loved and all that, by the time the reader hits page 98, he or she is ready for something else. Not Greek Goddesses recapitulating 2,000-year-old stories, necessarily, but maybe something about someone other than her.

But for all of the collection’s self-absorption, it’s good that it exists–and hopefully, it will resonate among the “formalist” audience who constitute much of Waywiser’s American audience. While Dawson does tend to go myopic, the object of study is sensual and vibrant, and her influences from more than one stream of American poetry should be instructive. While Big-Eyed Afraid does not entirely deliver on its potential, its author, in subsequent work, may well do so.

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6 Comments »

  1. Tim Murphy said

    This is the first Erica Dawson poem I have read, and it utterly grosses me out. Quince, you know I am not just an old man despising the young, I bend over backwards for young poets. I just hate to see techniques like rhyme and meter, which go back to prehistory, put to the service of this writer. And I mean SERVICE.

  2. Rose said

    Wow, Tim, that’s pretty extreme, especially considering you’ve only read one quatrain of one poem. I can see it not being your cuppa, but why the hostility? Sometimes it takes a little time to appreciate someone’s work when they’re doing something very different from what you’re used to.

  3. Rose said

    Correction: a whopping TWO quatrains.

  4. Robert Donohue said

    While A.E Stallings’s techniques can be traced back to the genres and styles of the 1590’s it’s wrong to hold this as a “gold” standard; different people have different perspectives. If formalist arguments have any real value, and I think they do, you will see them put to many services. I have not read Miss Dawson’s book, but I have read individual poems in journals and I am intrigued. A writer I have read, however, is Karen Volkman. While I think Miss Volkman’s work is vatic and silly, I do appreciate the effort she has made to put it into Petrarchan sonnets. Formalism should be like a wedding where everyone is invited.

  5. […] I was just looking at Quincy Lehr’s blog, The Belletrist, and ran across a discussion of how the tiresome free-verse-versus-formalist binary manifests itself in book reviews. Yes, let the barbaric yawpers of personal and artistic freedom continue to box, package, and […]

  6. i like peanutbutter

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