Sleeping With Houdini, prose poems by Nin Andrews (BOA Editions Ltd)

Nin Andrews writes entertaining, personality-driven prose poems pretending to tell the candid truth about their subjects, finally. The work isn’t as “scandalous” and “outrageous” as one of her blurbers insists, since her sensibility has much in common with movies and TV where irreverence, suggestive or graphic, is a pop staple. But there’s a shrewd calculation in her offhandedness. Nor is she “like no other writer, past or present,” as another admirer claims. Her gestures and leaps of fancy are, in fact, quite familiar. This is actually the value of her work: kicking new life into the pastiche of the psyche. With Andrews, everything points to epiphanies in minor keys. These are prose poems, after all, so everything depends on her narrative inventiveness and disarming intimacy of tone, both carrying on with lively confidence in their ability to please.

The poem below is called “Sleeping for Kafka”:

I heard on the radio this morning that prayers can heal. Experiments demonstrate that cancer patients who are prayed for, even by an anonymous person, have a better prognosis than those who receive no prayers.

A person can purchase prayers from Grace Church in Kansas by dialing 1-800-prayers. Via and Mastercard are accepted.

I read that Kafka, a chronic insomniac, felt refreshed after watching his beloved sleep. Sometimes he invited her over, just to admire how she draped herself over his couch, wrapped in immaculate rest.

Some speculate it was the dreams of his beloved he wrote.

Thoughts like dreams drift from mind to mind. Some are heavy and sink to the ground or disappear under water where they grow like sea plants, while others are light and glide upwards like helium molecules.

When Jacob saw angels going up and down a ladder, they were merely tracing his thoughts.

Nietzsche said few people think their own thoughts. Instead they are thought. Many people are dreamt and prayed. They are like seashells inhabited by hermit crabs.

Most of us have no clue whose dream we are.

andrews.jpgWhat impresses me the most about Sleeping With Houdini is Andrews’ crafty modulation of tone from poem to poem. Although some poems certainly share a particular slant of voice, overall one finds a thoughtful breaking of vocal pattern, an avoidance of the trap of monolithic charm. Most of these speakers, however, do have the power to pierce a surface of fact and utter some looming idea, as in the piece above. What we hear is the sound of a lively imagination married to nervy self-regard. What other kind of mind could say “Most of us have no clue whose dream we are”? This speaker wants us to take her seriously, for all the jumping around and loose associations.

One of my favorite poems is “Winging It,” which begins:

Robert Bly said he was fed up with poems that just wing it, that don’t connect to the things of the earth. He instructed everyone to write a poem in which they worshipped a thing or two, like an onion or a rock, and then ask forgiveness of the thing, or the God of the thing, so a writer might start out, Oh rock, lovely rock, and then he’d say, Forgive me oh rock, for I know not what I do, dear rock …

Further down the page, the speaker says, “I’d have to confess something, right then, if I were writing a Bly poem. To tell a secret, profound and maybe troubling.” This is the central Andrews gesture. With many writers, telling secrets brings no sense of discovery, since the secret is known in advance of the writing. But with Andrews, the spark of insight sounds fresh. Perhaps she makes it all up as she goes along, and the engrossing voice we hear comes from a genius for improvisation. The ending of the Bly poem is a case in point. In “Dear Confessional Poet,” she writes, “How else can I say it? I hate what you do. You and your entire school.” The poem soon swivels to consider “the first time I went to an evangelical church” where she and her childhood friends were asked by the clergy “to kindly tell a little tidbit about our wounds.” Here she recalls revealing that her mother “bought all my clothes two sizes too big”:

Thank you for sharing, everyone said. All I wanted to do was puke. I think everyone did. I think that’s what sharing means. Mary Rose patted my knee and hissed, Is that true? Yes, I said, but I wished it weren’t. I wish I’d lied. Later, that’s what my professor said to do. Why not, he told an entire class: Define the woman you aren’t and live to tell about it.

I suspect this comes pretty close to Andrews’ ars poetica. (And as Anne Sexton said, she also made up just about everything.)

Andrews writes about situations, frequently involving a man and a woman. Some of them, like “When A Woman Loves A Man,” are fanciful, disposable. Here is one paragraph: “Afterwards I slipped out without even saying goodbye, wearing the jacket from your Pierre Cardin suit and your wedding band, which I tossed to Marcel, the mustachioed bellboy with the hair the color of honey. He slid it on his ring finger and blew me kisses as I sashayed out into the night.” But other pieces are both terse and moving, such as “The Divorce”:

After the papers were signed, after I knew I was a single woman at last, I felt what it means to be alone for the first time. I felt as if everything were many sizes too big. Even the view of the sky overhead, divided by pine trees. It could go on and on forever. That’s what I kept to myself. I stayed inside. I needed to feel how the air slipped around me, and the sheets, too. And my own skin, how it wrapped around each finger and hipbone and traveled down my spine. I liked it, the perfect fit of my single body. And how I could place it, just so, in any hour and room like a single stalk in a glass vase.

Sleeping With Houdini, which at first glance may seem like a collection of shiny objects, soon yields a more complex beauty of unfulfilled longing, sharp intelligence, and buoyant imagination. Her book is a tonic.

[published 10/2007, 88 pp., $16 paper]