By Karen Leona Anderson
Reviewed by Michelle McMillan-Holifield
Milkweed Edition's website describes Karen Leona Anderson's recent collection, Receipt, as "the lovechild of Anne Sexton and Adam Smith." But I imagine it as the lovechild of Sexton and Sylvia Plath. Like Sexton, Anderson can take a thing you think you know and turn it on its head, making you rethink what it's like to be human, to be a woman; Sexton did it well with fairy tales in Transformations and Anderson does it in Receipt with, among other things, food (recipes) and paper (receipts). But I also find in Anderson's poems the same elusiveness I find in many of Plath's poem, so that while a particular poem's precise meaning may escape me, the poem's mood is still discernable and by the end I'm breathless and in love with a whole new language. Like Plath, Anderson's poems evoke that same shock I feel at the perpetual newness of language, that same exhilaration over a word or image used in a new way or a phrase that, within milliseconds, makes my feet lose sensation then heat up again, as if mid-flight I forget my absolute fear of flying.
Viewed as a whole, Receipt, which is organized into three sections ("Recipe," "Receipt," and "Re"), can be seen as an examination of the many-faceted roles a woman plays over her lifetime. However, the real meat of this book is the music (no matter how cacophonic) in the individual poems, the sounds that underscore the mood and make the poems alternately "sunbursty" and "fungal." Poet Jessica Piazza says, "You have to let [a] poem act upon you as much as it can." So while I can't always see the ground beneath me when I read Anderson's poems, I'm willing to soar on the sibilant wings of bats in "Echolocation": "We all want / to be sieved and saved, a signal / an emergency. Wishing the self / would stir while the others hold still." And, alternatively, I'm willing to "stalk the dead mall" in "Retired" where "the fungus lushly slot[s] the Gaps." Wherever Anderson wants to take me in her poems, I'll go, even if she sweeps my feet out from under me and turns me upside down.
This turning everything on its head is purposeful. Anderson knows what she's doing. It's why the fifty-three poems in this collection are filled with her taking an idea and presenting its negative, whether in the form of the word "not" before something you might actually expect or her use of the prefix "un," even where it sounds most unfamiliar. For instance, in the poem "Lacy" the title might suggest something intimate, but the poet writes, "I sew you to your shadow, crude / and machine made, torque your honeymoon . . . I come unstraight . . . unsunned and stripperish." Further in this same poem she writes:
I can't knit
for me that click and twist) and unbridesmaidenly
I never loved the pillow – talk nor cool
percale – but oh, if left outside, I can macramé some ozoney
throw for the bed.
Anderson juxtaposes harmonious-sounding ideas of honeymooning and knitting against the discordant "crude," "torque," "click," along with the negatives "unstraight," "unsunned," "can't knit," "unbridesmaidenly," and "never loved," all to negate the expectation of intimacy.
There are more than eighty instances in Receipt where Anderson does something similar. "Asparagus," with only twelve lines, is packed with negations and cacophonic, yet somehow utterly satisfying, music to make her point:
[B]ats, untatting the garden's
lace of gnats and mosquitoes, and at
the garden's edge the fungi, smoke
and ink, fringe-gilled, raw-capped, ragged
and still in veil, the havishammed
unlike ourselves, not bud, not born, not bridal but spores.
Reminiscent of how Plath uses harsh, almost-angry, sounds and images, this passage is loaded with such a mixture of fricatives, liquids, plosives, sibilance, and nasals, that by the time the poem ends, I don't know what to expect. I just know it's not this: "how I / love how I hate this place we've made." It doesn't matter that I didn't expect to end up here. I'm hooked.
I'm captivated by Anderson's skill at hooking me with almost every single poem in this collection. Receipt is her second book of poetry. It is a seasoned work, marinated in music that is rich and fresh. She is fearless. She's also relentless in presenting poetry that is beautifully melancholic. She knows as a poet, especially a female poet, she has to be relentless. Otherwise, she might end up just a "[b]reathing, heartbeat, / [a] plot in the chart." She's clearly defying and pushing us beyond that expected inevitability of being just a "beep." So, go where she takes you. "Learn from [her] ingredients": "The world is not made of what you thought."