on Taste of Cherry, poems by Kara Candito (University of Nebraska Press)
Kara Candito’s first book of poems, Taste of Cherry, gathers its dramatic force by recounting and weighing recent events, usually of an intimate nature. The world is recalled as a series of shocks to the senses – told with the bravura of an initiate challenged to fashion a self that measures up to such startling experiences. The rough action begins in the first lines of the opening poem, “Self-Portrait with an Ice Pick”: “Imagine the impact – wrecking ball, welcome / injury or collision, like some secret screamed / in a late night taxi.” The poem audaciously commands the reader to feel its impact – demanding to be regarded as a poem with impact.
My instinct is to resist, since I’m excessively wary of being exploited or taken in by the merely spectacular gestures of spattering one’s poems with bodily fluids and raising welts with lacerating or ominous similes. But I soon discovered that the graphic imagery of Taste of Cherry is a decoy, drawing me to the lurid or the louche only to deflate them with an equivocal perspective.
The speaker of “Self-Portrait with an Ice Pick” is actually more concerned about the difficulty of maintaining a tenuous presence above her own noir-ish scene (a neon sign glows “like a red undertow”) in which someone wields an ice pick to gouge a space in a freezer for a bottle of vodka. The circumstances aren’t particularly startling, but they register as such on the speaker. She continues, “There was the mind’s syncopation – fractured, / freezer-burnt, mesmerized by the shards of ice / that ricocheted across the floor.”
Taste of Cherry as a whole rings with syncopation, swinging between an all too physical world and an all too cerebral mind unsure of its place within the former. To compensate, her speakers gamely pack their language with a counter-assertiveness. Candito gives voice to strained and sometimes overly stylized attempts at describing anxiety and tentative assessments. The book is most poignant when it doubts its own forcefulness, for then the reader feels the stress of a young person struggling to clarify what remains elusive, namely experience itself. More from the poem:
What the body
wanted was its penance; scar, reminder that I
could love anyone, gnash my teeth on their
shoulder, then forget them in the subway car,
the stale air and grime of it, metal bar still
warm from a stranger’s hand and the shock, almost
erotic, of being jostled by so many limbs.
The speaker addresses her body as if it were a separate presence, a marred template serving to signify her part among the pushing and shoving of human desire – since this fact is still hard to come to terms with. Otherwise why make such a fuss? In “Floristic Elegy for the Year I Lived with You in Coconut Grove,” Candito writes, “This was Miami, where / you could get a green card or good head without / trying too hard … The air / heavy with hibiscus and the emphasis of appearance / over history. We studied the ideas of ourselves, / studiously.” Implicated in some sort of conspiracy of object-lust, the speaker includes the obsessive massaging of “the ideas of ourselves” in the mix of indulgences.
The physical state of this world is overbearing. What can we find within us as a counterbalance? The speaker rues her own role in the procession: “I’m afraid of daylight’s salt kiss, blue rain falling inside / the transparent wall, the way we let ourselves ignore // the drug boats bobbing on the horizon, the cigarette burns / on the cage dancer’s arm.” Perhaps the conceits of the salt kiss and the blue rain should have been deleted, since they wilt in the presence of the boats and burns. But as Taste of Cherry procceds, it relinquishes much of its reliance on these occasional inflations to generate texture and puts more trust in its narrative voice and a steered lyricism – without compromising its founding spirit.
“Postcard” (below), the book’s fifth poem, shows Candito exerting expert control over material and tone. This rich competency holds throughout most of the book, opening the way towards the more subtle effects triggered by underlying impulses. Just like the grapes in the final image, in this poem emotions, anecdote, myth, art and memory are simultaneously poised on and flowing over the rim of the speaker’s mind.
POSTCARD / I’ve Been Meaning to Write --
because it’s August in an ancient city and I want to
tell you about this heat that hangs like the mind
of a landscape in which everything is still and irritable
as the stray cats that nap on the ruins of Pompey’s theatre.
Because the man whom served my espresso this morning
looked like you. In a certain light, I peered through
the bronze keyhole and saw the Basilica framed by fire.
Because I miss you even as I try to efface you,
like the lunatic who smashed David’s genitals with a hammer.
Beauty is an anesthesia here. It dulls the brain. I write;
it’s called memory, then story. It never resembles the real
things I want to say when the wind is still and fountains
rush around the night. My apartment is dark and laundry
hangs in sad heaps on the balcony. There are chicken bones
in the sink. Below, in the Piazza, a gelateria. At night,
families arrive – men holding their sons high, like props;
women blowing smoke in imperfect circles and whispering
behind manicured hands about their husbands’ affairs.
So many minor betrayals (the urge to sleep through church bells).
The Triumph of Galatea, on the reverse, is short and coarse.
Recall that it ends in bloodshed. I think Raphael understood
that no one wants to be Polyphemus, the one who sees
her eyes as little spurs in his sides and suffers and hides.
We all want to be Galatea, laughing sidelong, smirking
over her shoulder at a suitor’s clumsy song. Such a small
offense. And doesn’t it make her beautiful? So, grief becomes
the punishment for ridicule and justice is its own rapture –
a boulder hurled, a river pounding a hollow cave in the head.
I can’t forget your studio, the one on the side street,
with sealed windows. Everything inside cheap and new
or abandoned and broken. On the wall, a still life of overripe
fruit in a wooden frame. How you envied the voluptuous grapes,
the way they burst over the rim of the bowl –
In the allusive and panoramic “Egypt Journal,” Candito brings her key subjects and gestures to bear, playing a tourist Galatea on a camel and addressing through memory the young man riding beside her who sends “text messages / in three languages to your friends in Brooklyn.” Referring to “a cobra’s undulating path,” the speaker says, “it isn’t hard to understand why what’s deadly / isn’t so awful after all, once you accept the thing / slithering in the yard of the mind …” There is a long self-recognition underway. The poem ends with an unstated, spirited pride in the freedom of her critical eyes and what they have discovered in this travelogue:
I am laughing because later all that will remain
of this place are the sores blooming beneath
the camel’s saddle, the bomb mirrors they swept beneath the car
each time we returned to the hotel, and that your father said
when we were introduced, the part you didn’t translate, which I
understood: Ayoon otta. Cat eyes. And later,
when you explained his question: How can you trust
a woman with eyes like an animal that is loyal to no one?
In the book’s second part, “Portraits,” Candito experiments with personae and different ways of erecting and revealing character. If the world’s forces dominate the opening poems, then here Candito creates figures who narrate the effects of stress. But with speakers representing characters in novels by Atwood and Faulkner, the poems’ literariness detracts from Candito’s charismatic powers in part one and slows down the book. I would have argued against bunching these poems and for eliminating one or two altogether.
The third and final section begins with the title poem, reverting to high drama. Although the language is charged with brutality and the scene is brightly lit, there is very little for the reader to do with lines like “But, you wanted love like an air raid, / all sirens and red explosions.” It simply is never clear why the speaker is so enchanted by this scenario, and perhaps that is its point: one becomes captivated by the fierce surface of events, is effaced and disordered by them. “Maybe you shouldn’t have broken / a bottle over that guy’s head.” But Candito writes with more ambition in the next poem, “Barely Legal / Upon Finding My Father’s Porn” – and then, with wit and energy in “Sleeping With Rene Magritte”: “while he chanted somewhere / between laughter and tears, This is not a breast. / This is not a breast.” In “On the Occasion of Our Argument During a VH1 Best Power Ballads Countdown,” the speaker regains control of perspective: “Even in this late hour of realism, splayed out on our cold / pre-martial bed, I can read beneath the eyeliner // and the whammy bars, everything I’ve learned to love in men, / which is sloppy indifference and a vague threat of violence.”
Candito’s attitude toward power is ambiguous, but not her display of it. Hers is a baroque indifference. Are her speakers femme fatales or nubile victims? Towards the end of the book, the captivating poem “The Fitting” reads like both an indictment and a letter of congratulations for providing such great material to write about. Addressing a “you,” the speaker recaps that person’s recent experiences with a “she”: “You are not so foolish anymore, having known her, / all the smallest crimes / she committed, like the time she called you / a philistine for walking out on that Kurosawa film.” The poem ends, “When you’re not sure, remember those strange, // muffled sounds she made during sex, as if the coordinates / for buried treasure were caught / in her throat and she’d rather choke than share the gold.”
Taste of Cherry is irresolute and gripping, dramatically depicting tidal rushes of thought and instinct. The poems can be almost imperious in their wielding of power over the reader – just as the narrator of “The Fitting” tells its “you” what time of day it is. (The implication is that he hasn’t grasped the full impact of what has occurred.) And as such, they are desperate to gain a foothold in a clashing, passionate, and sometimes injurious world. This is what one hopes to find in a first book – the chance taken to spill beyond itself, the language flung outwards at a deceptive target, the inner conflicts harshly exposed -- and resolved not in story but in the form of the poem.
[Published September 1, 2009. 68 pages, $17.95 paperback.