Saturday, January 19, 2008


The following book review originally appeared in Whistling Shade, a quarterly tabloid published on real newsprint, in 11-point Perpetua.

67 Mixed Messages by Ed Allen (Ahsahta Press)

For his first book of poetry, novelist and Flannery O'Connor Award-winning writer Ed Allen (Straight Through the Night, Mustang Sally, and Ate It Anyway) has set himself a formidable task. Each of the 67 poems that comprise 67 Mixed Messages is not only a Shakespearean sonnet, but also an acrostic, and all of those acrostics bear the exact same message: "I LOVE SUZI GRACE." The first four words of the second stanza in each poem are also the same: "I love you, Suzi." The result is oddly compelling, intellectually satisfying, occasionally disturbing, and loaded with equal amounts of pathos and humor.

The sonnet sequence follows a narrative in which the speaker, a professor in Vermillion, South Dakota (home of the University of South Dakota), who shares a name and job with the author of the book, recounts his adoration, mostly from a distance, of a female student. What contributes to the mixed message quality of the unabashedly infatuated poems is that the narrator appears to be gay. So, in addition to the tensions created by the age difference and the issue of a professor's romantic interest in a student, there are also the questions of why and how he desires her.

The girl of his dreams-a girl with a reputation who goes to bars "where students crowd like sheep"-lives in a trailer on the plains where she watches MTV. His fantasies of Suzi are decidedly low rent. He imagines walking hand-in-hand with her in a mall in front of Sears, or bedding her between K-Mart sheets or in a Super 8. The apotheosis of his dreams is a trip together to Vegas and a chintzy wedding there. Meanwhile, Suzi's ambitions never seem to rise above her entrance in a South Dakota beauty pageant.

While the protagonist's imagination may not always rise above the lowest common denominators of commercial America, Allen, the author, is weaving in literary allusions to other sonneteers, and creating a narrative with elements of a journal. With a desert war playing in the background on CNN, the speaker of the poems travels east to attend a conference on Robert Frost where he reflects on Suzi, the war, and Frost, as well as a friend diagnosed with breast cancer. In fact, the emphasis in poems 23-32 shifts from Suzi to this friend and her illness, lending additional weight to what otherwise might easily be a superficial infatuation. Poems 34-36 then allude to the most renowned writer of sonnets-Shakespeare himself. Number 35 begins with a reference to the sublime-"If Suzi's eyes could look more like the sun"-and concludes with the banally ridiculous-"Call me extreme, but Suzi in the sun / Exceeds all spreads that Hefner's ever run."

Allen pulls off most of his sonnets with élan, but the book 67 Mixed Messages is most closely related to is not a volume of poetry, but Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. There is more than just a bit of Humbert Humbert in the narrator of these obsessed odes. One poem is titled "Suzi Disguised as a Body Pillow," and another, "What It Would Be Like to Have Suzi Looking up into My Eyes the Way Actresses Do in Porno Movies." Jealousy of and disdain for her boyfriends and her tastes permeate these poems. There is even a touch of vengeful bitterness at her aging at the end, with two of the final poems titled "Thinking about Suzi on a Day When I Don't Have Any Desire For Her" and "Watching Suzi Drive Away on a Day When She Looks Heavier." If Lolita was an ambiguous love song to America, Allen continues in the same key. The narrator is too old, educated, and cultivated to fall for the same things his young inamorata does, but he seems to envy her youthful, nearly mindless ability to immerse herself in the music, beer, and boys of the plains. Effete, if not gay, he is drawn in by Suzi Grace's bland midwesternness. In a land of know-nothings, this misfit might be able to pass-to fit in-if he could possess her. She would not just be a beard for his sexuality, but perhaps more importantly for his outsider intellectual status. At one point, Allen even claims he is willing to give up his position in academia to work in a slaughterhouse if he could have her.

The book is not without its shortcomings. Some sentences defy parsing, such as: "You can be as bad, / Greedy, promiscuous, dishonest, blind." And Allen's Z-lines often suffer from a sense that his self-imposed rules have forced him away from the mot juste, and has had to settle for an unsatisfactory approximation. Take: "Unkindness, when it comes from Suzi, feels / Zones far removed from what I know as pain." That may scan, but it certainly doesn't sing.

What is most pleasing about these poems is how Allen maintains the traditional form of the sonnet while addressing his humble subject matter, acknowledging that "Eros lives among the lawn-parked cars."

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