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kim addonizio, what is this thing called love

15 May 2004

I'll admit it – the title drew my eye to Kim Addonizio's new volume What Is This Thing Called Love. I love the idea that a leading contemporary poet would invoke Cole Porter in a book title. And having read the book, I like Addonizio's engagement with popular culture; I think it's the center of her achievement here.

There are several kinds of poem in What Is This Thing Called Love: many intense personal meditations and observations, a couple of intensely difficult formal experiments (a paradelle, a sonnenizio), and a few riffs on popular-culture themes; as I said, I think the third kind are by far the best. Love and death are co-equal themes for most of the running – the first of five sections is all love poems, the second all death; they take turns afterward – and while there's nothing exactly wrong with these themes (Emily Dickinson, for one, is supposed to have said that there wasn't anything else worth writing about), it's hard to surprise a reader with a meditation on either.

Addonizio writes a loose free verse, sometimes loosely rhymed, with an occasional pentameter line to grab your attention; she's fond of blues forms. She is capable of memorable and synthetic images, as in the volume's final piece, "Kisses," where she imagines every kiss she's ever received still present to her senses: "Every kiss is here somewhere, all over me like a fine, shiny grit, like I'm a pale / fish that's been dipped in a thick swirl of raw egg and dragged through flour, / slid down into a deep skillet, into burning" (128).

But often, after presenting such an image, Addonizio will trail off into a fairly pat phrase. After imagining "31-Year-Old Lover" as a dairy product: "When he takes off his clothes / I think of a stick of butter being unwrapped" (25) – with all the attendant melting in prospect – she sums him up pretty flatly: "he is so perfectly made." Trucks pass outside lovers' windows "following the familiar routes of their loneliness" (35); an organ donor is addressed as "oh beloved whom we did not know" (56). Vibrantly begun poems or sections of poems tend to fade out into stock endings.

But enough of these poems sustain high energy that What Is This Thing Called Love is well worth reading. Since the Cole Porter title promised some takes on great lyric, I was drawn to the book's fourth section, which has several pieces titled after jazz standards: "Lush Life," "'Round Midnight," "South of the Border," "Body and Soul." In these poems, Addonizio finds sharp physical analogues for mental states: bottles that contain future drunken behavior, the novel that conceals an alternative self, the soul "like a small paper bag" (95).

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