Sheenagh Pugh (sheenaghpugh) wrote,
Sheenagh Pugh

Review of Sharps Cabaret by Katy Giebenhain, pub. Mercer University Press 2017

I've often admitted to a special fondness for émigré poets, because they seem to have a sharper, less habituated way of looking at things and because they see their new surroundings through the prism of the old, which makes things more interesting. Expats never feel as if they have a comfort zone, they write from an edge, like people observing but on the verge of leaving.

Well, here we have one who identifies, in two poems, as an "ex-expatriate" – someone who has spent a long time away from her place of birth, then returned to it. If anything, this is even more interesting, because of course the person who returns cannot be the same as the one who left, and whatever she experienced elsewhere will change her viewpoint on what she once thought she knew.

It also means she is never fully at home anywhere. In "The Accidental German" she is a transplanted American who

         gets sentimental
         for Methodist Churches, rodeo queens
         and motel ice machines

while in "Another Ex-Expatriate" she is

          an emigrant back with a prodigal sigh
          and half a heart across the sea.

There's no way to solve this conundrum, but as a writer you wouldn't want to; it is too fruitful.

Another defining characteristic of hers is a lightness of touch on essentially serious matters. Deracination, language, a life-threatening illness, all are treated with an entire absence of solemnity. It isn't humour exactly, more a cosmic sense of proportion, that enables her, in "James Bond and the Type 1 Diabetic Bridesmaid", to see the medical paraphernalia of diabetes as the emergency gadgets Q tends to lay out before 007 in the films:

          She's ruled some things out:
          the knife holder from Chinatown
          now unstrapped from her thigh,
          jellybeans hand-sewn to bra straps,
          elastic candy wristlets
          to bite at the slightest low.

A similarly audacious metaphor turns "Miss Hydraulic Fracturing", which could so easily have been preachy, into a delight:

          Here she is-
          Strip Mining's half-sister
          just come to our school
          with sleek hair and old tricks […]

          she has football players
          in her bed
          she has school board members
          in her bed.

          she's not her, of course,
          the half-sister we know
          but listen, watch
          you can tell they're kin-

          here we go, here we go again.

In "Hunting Season", American deer "throw themselves at cars" like the Rhineland sailors who were said to throw themselves from boats under the Lorelei's spell. This looks like the strangest metaphor yet, but the Rhineland is where the ex-expatriate has been, and now a near-miss between animal and car leads to a meditation on various kinds of "touching but not-quite-meeting"; strangers brushing past in the subway, a shark's shadow in the water uncomfortably close.

          How startling it is, when space
          is not wholly yours
          the way you thought it was.

That juxtaposition, and the observation it leads to, are so the kind of thing I have come to expect of expat poets, and am always happy to find. The "sharps" of the title poem are hypodermic needles, but it's an adjective that can equally apply to the observation and language here.
Tags: book reviews, poetry

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