By Nancy Reddy
Reviewed by Kjerstin Kauffman
Nancy Reddy's debut poetry collection, Double Jinx, is a fierce, introspective work of metamorphosis and remaking. The poems are mostly coming-of-age scenarios—sexuality, identity, familial anger, polarities of "good" and "bad"—and there's plenty of page-turning tension. Most pieces offer accessible narrative frameworks, though the metaphorical landscapes created by the collection as a whole are complex. With few exceptions, Reddy works in a bracing tone just shy of vitriol, and her language often takes a brutal turn: "It hurt like . . . limbs / wrenched from sockets," she writes about one situation, "like the baby girl / born loose-limbed, her hips dislocated so that on the exam table / she lay like a spatchcocked chicken." This kind of movement is characteristic: Reddy introduces a tender image only to "spatchcock" it almost immediately, or else she begins with a corpse or carcass and resurrects it. It's a movement that can be off-putting in its frequency, but seems necessary for this poet in order to achieve lyric vulnerability.
"I was a fool and am still made of flesh," says Reddy, recalling George Herbert's "my stuff is flesh, not brass," though with more irony and less overt restraint. Flesh appears plenty in Double Jinx, whether we're dealing with prehistory ("Inventing the Body"), adolescent metamorphosis ("Possible and Impossible Sentences"), or mothers ("Family Portrait with Rosary and a Steak Knife"). More often than not, females are associated with meat, and males with butchery, as in "Big Valley's Last Surviving Beauty Queen":
Once you were a pretty thing, quick-witted
as a mousetrap. Your ponytail was slick like horse hair.
One word-poor schoolboy said so. He meant well,
anyway. The boys all did, and they lined the butcher's alley
to carry home your brisket and your cold cuts. You
loved them all then,
for a moment and kissed each one behind the Dairy Queen
to prove it. Only the milkman failed to love you
The implications here are obvious, which is tonally to Reddy's advantage. She likes to hang her metaphors in plain sight, and then lead us careening into them. She likes us to cringe.
As skillfully as Reddy can turn anything into a carcass, though, it happens a lot over eighty-two pages. Each individual poem is fierce and disquieting in the best sense, but there's at times an element of predictability to them viewed as a whole. In exploring herself, Reddy tries all kind of frameworks on for size: the fairy tale, the myth, history, prehistory, preteen mystery, and family lore (a poem titled "Genealogy" reads, in its entirety: "My father was a wolf"). So many of these have been done before by the feminists of our generation, and when I first picked up the collection, I wasn't altogether keen on reading yet another ironic, inverse Cinderella story, much as I admire Reddy's clear inspiration in figures like Anne Sexton and Brigit Pegeen Kelly.
Yet the voice in the poems is fresh. I did feel engaged in the expression of the person behind these poems, for whom the range seems to indicate, more than anything, a particular taste in reading (past and present). The tension involving views of the body and the self seems to be a real and morphing tension, and that's compelling.
The subtlest, and to my mind, most satisfying poems in the collection are structured in such a way that what is taken to be two people in relation to a third might actually be read as one in relation to another, or even as the self in relation to itself. In the final section of Double Jinx, we find a series of poems styled as missives to "Sir" or "My Dear Miss Z." Maybe it's only the rhetorical trick of direct address, but something in these poems seems more vulnerable, less assertive and denunciatory, and more honestly troubled. They bring together many elements of the collection: not just meat, but a failure to eat ("I gulped it down. And then my body said no"), being intimately touched ("at night you came to me and slipped your hand / between my ribs"), rejection ("His name a sore / I can't stop tonguing") and, particularly, dying and rebirth ("I spent a long year / in the earth, I made you / in my image.") There's a discernible narrative in which the speaker has been abandoned for another woman. "I have been made a fool of," she says to Miss Z—and apparently Miss Z is the source of her trouble. "I knew he'd love you better," she admits. But to the "Sir" she writes, employing that old-fashioned, too-formal title, "She—your current sweetheart, / your sometime / darling—has my name."
She has my name. This is an important revelation. In two poems which frame the collection, "The Case of the Double Jinx" and "The Secret Nancy," the poet retells the plotlines of Nancy Drew mysteries as though Nancy has a split consciousness, and is able to observe herself from the outside. It's a concept that could easily be hokey, and I did find it so at first. But by the end of the book I still remembered some weird moments in "The Case of the Double Jinx," which speaks to their power: "You're in her hair. / One quick slit and you're in the space inside / her skin." And,
She's a foxtrot. She's a jinx and you can't speak.
You're a dahlia and she's the state fair's
bright-eyed Susans. Or she's the real Nancy
and you're a costume party.
For the final "Secret Nancy," it seems possible to sidestep falsely perceived categories of "good" and "bad," and the speaker can enjoy a man's caresses—or rather, her own body—without guilt. But that interested me much less than the speaker's discomfort at feeling that she both is and is not herself, that she's an imposter in some other Nancy. Reddy manages to make that feeling intense and poignant, even within a clearly artificial and tweeny set-up. It matters that these speakers talk about themselves as being both that person—the one who had inadequate parents and a repressive moral framework and an eating disorder and nerdy reading habits and who fell short of her own standards in so many ways—and this one, the one that can look with honesty at shaping forces and turn them to some new end, which is a kind of rebirth.
Given the nature of what's at stake in Double Jinx, one does at times feel like a carnivore, consuming the poet's proffered self. These poems risk being overly accusatory or interpretive of themselves, especially those relating to the speaker's childhood. And yet there is, in Reddy's best moments, a vulnerable irony present which keeps them from being only fierce and denunciatory. "Come Fetch" captures some of the difficulty and repellent beauty of the work of introspection (the "he" here is the "wrong man" this persona married):
I pawed her
up again, I nosed the dulcet
rot of her, the savory flesh
of thighs and ass. I saw that she
looked nothing like me, not even
in the moss and rigor mortis of her afterlife
apparel. I loved him them. I gripped
her by the ankle and dragged her
to the hearth. I brought both our bodies
back for proof.
A sense of identity can be duplicate without dissembling. Double Jinx is this poet's arresting proof.