The Barbie Diaries by Dale Champlin, reviewed by Paul Telles

The Barbie Diaries by Dale Champlin

Just a Lark Books (November 17, 2019), 65 pp $14

ISBN #: 978-1708450267

Available at: dale@champlindesign.com

Is it possible to say anything new about Barbie? Since her introduction in 1959, the PVC fashionista has been reviled and revered, loved and loathed. Her literary footprint includes adoring preteen blogs, scathing doctoral theses, and an authorized biography from Random House.

Still, I’d be willing to bet that Oregon poet Dale Champlin is almost alone in considering Barbie a fit hero for epic poetry. In her 2019 book, The Barbie Diaries, Champlin presents a sequence of 57 poems that portray the inner life of a Barbie doll who is both typical of her kind and a compelling individual. Aware she’s both sentient and plastic, this Barbie wrestles with several troubled relationships including her unequal marriage to a Ken doll, the doomed love of her girl owner, and the sadistic depredations of the girl’s brother. The result is a free-verse dramedy that is thought-provoking, literate, and awake to the absurdities on display in American Pop Culture.

The Barbie Diaries cleverly invokes the epic tradition with a three-part narrative that begins by portraying Barbie in the context of her suburban milieu. In the second part, Barbie undergoes her hero’s ordeal when she spends a year submerged in a backyard swimming pool. Rescued by a pool cleaner, she returns home in the third part, wiser and more self-assured, but not entirely relieved of her issues.

The book begins with an ironic take on the epic argument in a short poem titled “Writing Weird” that introduces Barbie’s inner turmoil and ambivalence about her hopeless marriage. Since you’ve left I’ve been writing weird, Barbie says before describing her unique existential predicament:

Alone in lostness, with my new Barbie body,

I teeter across the four-lane in my six-inch stilettos,

without a blink of my swimming-pool blue eyes.

She recalls the good times in her marriage, including a camping trip to Reno in my bubblegum-pink convertible camper. She waxes nostalgic about how she and Ken squatted in the motel / and swilled dry martinis, then recalls that Ken is now gone. Where are you Ken? I miss your square jaw, she concludes.

Much of the book’s first section tells us why the marriage is over. In “Terrible Fun,” Barbie recalls a premarital date whenthe couple had sex in Ken’s apartment. I should have guessed by your plastic pompadour / that you’d be into S&M, Barbie comments before describing how Ken tied her hands with a twist tie, then slid a bit between her teeth.

You rode me like a demon—

clenched me in a choke hold, snakebit my neck

and hard-knuckled my thighs.

Fearing Ken has finished with her, Barbie worries that he will sell her on eBay. The poem concludes with a terrifying image of sexual abuse:

After you flipped me over,

you told me my tits

looked like dead rabbits.

As her marriage careens toward divorce, Barbie also contends with the family who owns her. In “Possession,” Barbie recalls how she began her life as a little girl’s treasure, only to see this relationship fade as the girl grew up. At first, she remembers, the girl carried her everywhere and even shared chocolate ice cream with her. However, as Barbie begins to fall apart under the wear and tear of daily play, the relationship with the girl becomes less certain. Once again, Barbie finds she is an object in a disposable culture.

After her mom’s hairdryer

scorched my hair

she cut off the burnt ends.

It was not an improvement.

I thought I was priceless,

but I was replaceable.

Like many Barbies throughout the decades, Champlin’s hero must deal with her girl’s brother, whose boyish hi-jinks are revealed to be cruel and misogynistic. At various points throughout the book, the brother kicks Barbie into a gutter, buries her in the backyard, and hangs her from a silver thread / compelling as spider silk.

The rest of the book explores and expands on these relationships and themes. In the second section, the year spent in the swimming pool gives Barbie a chance to face her demons. As she feels her polyvinyl chloride off-gassing in the chlorinated water, Barbie reflects on her life and relationships and recognizes some unpleasant realities about her family.

“The Day All I Could Think of Was Suburbia” begins with a deft lyrical landscape that offers an example of how The Barbie Diaries paints Barbie as a convincing character:

I remember looking out the picture window

the sprinkler on the lawn twirled,

rainbows gleamed in the fine mist,

robins tugged worms from the damp turf.

Noting there was a fire hydrant on every corner, Barbie portrays the security of the American middle-class lifestyle before turning toward its darker side:

My little girl’s mother clutched

her first drink of the morning

in her white-knuckled manicured hand.

Rescued unceremoniously by a pool cleaner, Barbie goes “Home At Last” in the final section. In a mere eight poems, we learn that Barbie, like all epic heroes, has grown and matured because of her ordeal in the pool. In the book’s final poem, “I Feel I Understand Existence,” Barbie considers all of her relationships from a stance of hard-earned self-knowledge. She accepts she is a discarded plaything while also expressing her sense of agency.

Although I may be no more than a tchotchke

on a shelf gathering dust that I will never return to—

my thoughts resurface as artifacts

lured to the present by something

I don’t quite understand.

Still, she ends by hoping the girl will once again turn her way.

When will she remember where she’s

concealed me? What box, what chest,

what burial?

As The Barbie Diaries tells their peculiar tale, Barbie flirts with religion, falls in love with a frog, and parties in a Motel 6. Still, the book succeeds in connecting Barbie’s anxieties and struggles to larger questions of identity, gender, and sexuality. Even as I laughed at her ridiculous situations, I empathized with her struggle to balance her need for independence with her need for love. Against the odds, Champlin enabled me to relate to Barbie as a real person.

Paul Telles’s poems have appeared in several print and digital publications, including BoomerLitMag, Verseweavers, and Children, Churches, and Daddies. He is a winner of multiple Oregon Poetry Association prizes, including an Honorable Mention in the Traditional Verse category in Fall 2019.

The Leaf, by Nancy Christopherson, reviewed by Paul Telles

The Leaf by Nancy Christopherson

Nancy Christopherson (July 13, 2015), 66 pp $8

ISBN #: 978-0-692-42433-9

Available at: http://www.nancychristophersonpoetry.com/

In her 2015 book, The Leaf, Oregon poet Nancy Christopherson showcases uncommon poems about one of the most common human sufferings—the loss of a parent. In poems deployed throughout her self-published collection, Christopherson builds a loose thematic arc that poignantly explores her mother’s loss of independence, her death in an assisted care facility, and its implications for those she left behind.

This thematic development reaches its climax near the middle of the book with a series of six consecutive poems filled with keenly observed imagery that conveys deep feeling without lapsing into sentiment.

“Reconciliation on Blue Mountain,” for instance, finds Christopherson reviewing her relationship with her mother as the woman approaches her final days. The poem begins with Christopherson and her son looking for a spot to bury his pet rabbit in the mountains near their home in Eastern Oregon. Noting that her son was angry and bitter, / not about the rabbit, / but about other things, Christopherson gradually picks up on his mood as she drifts into reverie about her mother. At first, she shows fondness for the ailing woman, remembering how her lips tremble sometimes when / she searches my eyes with her gentle / blue eyes for her lost memories. As the poem proceeds, however, Christopherson turns to bleak recollections of betrayal and abandonment:

… On my thirteenth

birthday she married Dick, who hawked

insurance and everything else, took his

thick leather belt to my brother, then

took our mother away in his ugly

Jeep pickup, all the way to Alaska,

leaving my brother and me behind.

How could she do that? Go with him.

Reminding herself that these events occurred a long time ago, Christopherson finds reconciliation by recalling my mother’s pain. / My father’s pain and even Dick’s pain as he lay dying of cancer. She counsels her son that we must learn certain things like patience, / forgiveness, perseverance. After the rabbit is consigned to a grave festooned with wild flowers, the poem ends with imagery that suggests a new basis for Christopherson’s relationship with her dying mother.

And besides, I love to brush her hair, it’s thick

and white and soft.

“When My Mother Died,” arguably the climax of the entire book, begins with a stark observation:

When My Mother Died

Her right eyelid didn’t close all the way,

leaving a shallow band of opaque

at the bottom

Christopherson describes how she unsuccessfully tried to close her mother’s eye by using my right fingertips / the way they used to do in the movies. When her mother’s eye refused to stay closed, Christopherson pressed it back open, but the eyelid returned to its half-closed position.

It would only slide slowly back down,

leaving that same shallow band

of opaque at the bottom

In the end, Christopherson accepts her mother’s eye—and death—as they are:

not her choice, not mine,

but some other.

The last of the six poems, “Putting Things Right,” shows Christopherson’s family growing close after the mother’s death. Dedicated to Christopherson’s brother, Allen, the poem focuses on moments immediately after the funeral when the siblings sit on a lawn watching nieces and nephews play. Reminded how she and Allen played on lawns as children, Christopherson fondly recalls tumbling / head over heels and grass in our hair, / bits of thatch, / laughter. Sadly but inevitably, Christopherson’s thoughts turn back to the childhood trauma described in “Reconciliation.” This time, though, she pays tribute to Allen, who is described as tender and loving despite his suffering.

You, who were abandoned too soon

by your mother, who got down anyway

onto your hands

and knees to lower mom’s urn into dirt,

and who so patiently now

holds urn above dirt while I snap, briefly, the

necessary shutter.

The Leaf’s poems about death and dying are interwoven with skillful poems on other themes, such as the relationship between nature and human creativity, travel, and ars poetica. Many of the 38 poems in The Leaf portray moments when the Eastern Oregon landscape intersects meaningfully with Christopherson’s inner life. One of my favorites was “Master Heron,” one of three poems that contemplate the Great Blue Heron. This 13-line poem begins with Christopherson observing a Heron standing tall on the rocky bar / deep in his own contemplation of water / and of fish.

Calling the bird a monk / in smoky grey feathers, Christopherson admires its patience so much that she takes it as a spiritual master. She aspires to the same patience, watching him carefully with the hope she can become heron. The poet ends by observing the bird’s majestic aloofness: He sometimes allows this.

Unfortunately, despite the obvious quality of Christopherson’s work, I felt the collection lost some of its energy and focus in the second half. The first half of the book foreshadowed the climactic series with vivid, intimate poems. One of the most striking was “Mending My Mother’s Clothes,” an understated lament in which Christopherson lovingly recalls sewing sessions with her mother while performing simple repairs the woman can no longer do for herself. In the second half, however, poems approach death dramatically, historically, and symbolically. “Mona Lisa” and “Death on the Farm” are third-person poems about women grieving and confronting their own mortality. The final poem, “Blizzard at Ground Zero,” uses a rich description of a snow-filled landscape to warn of an impending white where the imagination falls silent. While each of these poems has its heartfelt virtues, they seemed to emotionally distance the collection from realities it had bravely confronted earlier.

This minor complaint did not detract from the genuine poetic pleasure I found on every page of The Leaf. Christopherson’s poems are sharply observed and musically composed. They convey a strong sense of place immediately recognizable to anyone familiar with Eastern Oregon. And they display genuine human feeling and wisdom in the face of one of our greatest shared sufferings.

Reviewer bio:

Paul Telles is a poet and Yoga teacher who lives in Beaverton, Oregon. His poems have appeared in Verseweavers, Children, Churches and Daddies, and Currents, a journal published by the Body-Mind Centering Association. He is a winner of multiple Oregon Poetry Association prizes, including an Honorable Mention in the Traditional Verse category in Fall 2019. He is a two-time finalist in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association literary contest.

Bee Dance by Cathy Cain, reviewed by Paul Telles

Bee Dance by Cathy Cain

The Poetry Box (June 15, 2019), 87 pp, $16

ISBN #: 978-1948461221

Available at: https://thepoetrybox.com/bookstore/bee-dance

In Bee Dance, Portland poet Cathy Cain brings a fresh take to one of the most venerable themes in modern poetry: the troubled relationship between the natural world and human society.In 51 tightly crafted poems, Cain explores her theme from a full circuit of perspectives, contemplating such issues as the link between poetic creativity and natural genesis, the alienation engendered by digital technology, and the generative power of women.

From its very first poemHint of Hexagon, Bee Dance leaves no doubt about its primary concern: the lack of harmony between nature and human creations. The poem begins with a speaker reading the news and seeking a safer read / beyond the headlines. She recallsa story she saw earlier about Saturn’s north pole and how it gathers and swirls in a handsome hexagon. Realizing this fearsome harmony also is found on Earth, she focuses on the clean design of the honeycomb, contrasting it with the amorphous perversity of human designs.

But all is not lost for the human race. Another news story says our own nerve tracts, / may also be loosely packed / as if in a beehive / a hint of hexagon. The poem concludes with a lovely stanza that gives us the book’s title:

The pleasure of pattern

a map

through the rough human expanse

between perfect flower and honey trance

I could show you where I’ve been

do my best bee dance

Bee Dance never loses focus on this theme. The final poem “La Lune de Mielechoes the first by contrasting the hexagon of bee life with the sway of human curve. In between these points, Cain’s reflections unfold like a flower, with each new poem forming a petal that grows in a fresh direction from the stem. In some poems, humans find awestruck connections with nature; in others, they are at odds with it in ways they don’t understand. Some poems have naturalistic Northwest settings; others are dream-like and mythic. Some are optimistic, others pessimistic.

All of the poems feature surprising images presented in a lyrical free verse that often adapts traditional forms. Several of my favorites were free-verse sonnets with strong conceits and echoes of traditional rhyme schemes. “Without Defense,”for example, uses a portrait of two young surfers to subtly warn of the dangers in taking nature for granted. The poem begins with a quatrain that features very direct rhymes:

Their swim suits mimic the surf’s crisp blue sheen,

bare skin echoes wet sand, dark and rich.

Two young brothers, maybe twelve and fourteen.

One waits. One skims. Then they switch in the morning mist.

The rhyme scheme relaxes in the second and third stanzas, which portray the boys’ bravado as they laugh and wager against cold waves and boiling sea, even when they’re crashing without defense. The final quatrain ends with a concerned question: When will the sure surge roar in / to undo their cool, upright innocence? The poem closes with a couplet true to its Shakespearean heritage:

For now, engaging the sea with a glinting glide,

they throw the board, thinking only of the ride.

As well as critiquing humanity’s engagement with nature, Bee Dance celebrates the joy to be found in intimate relationships with non-human life. For instance, “Planting Spring Bulbs,”a very short poem near the end of the book, uses simple, affecting language to show how the creative power of women expresses the power of the Earth:

the way this earth mounds up

sister

as new life surges

within you

I touch your belly

that rises

like the sun

More complex lyrics portray this unity as the fruit of determined searching. “Sitting Cross-Legged in the Forest, I BecomePeziza, an Upturned Cup Mushroom”uses a free-verse variation on terza rima to portray a speaker longing for communion with nature as she meditates. The first of the poem’s seven tercets describes how a gesture used in Buddhist meditation suggests a mushroom awaiting rain:

My hands form a cup of spores, each an ornamented dream.

Come now, rain, with your clear and focused drops,

splash my spores far into this forest gleam.

After calling on the breeze to touch my smooth curve, the speaker recalls earlier contemplative efforts and declares my secret source of growth / has prospered. As her meditation deepens, her silence bursts and reveries rise together. The poem ends in expectancy:

I remain ready to greet the rain.

Listen for the longing of letters, hungry

to reveal my name.

Other poems find Cain fleeing digital culture to connect with the natural world through poetry. In “Dream of a List of Names,”the speaker begins by asserting I will live in the forest with the fairies. To fulfill this dream, she must hold in her heart the list of our names… that were caught in our ruthless digital life. Having hacked the machines, she rescues our names and takes up the poet’s work:

Now among the trees I drip an inky trail

With my feather quill I rewrite our names by hand

She ends by wishing all of us back into our dreams, which lead to an Edenic forest:

damp earth      scented fir

the forest canopy sways

bursts with the light of birds

To Cain’s credit, as I finished Bee Dance, I found myself struggling with mixed emotions. On one hand, I was sad to be reminded so poignantly that a vein mined by poets from Wordsworth to Merwin remains so rich and disastrously relevant. On the other hand, I was glad to be reassured that we can still dance with the bees and love the voices of our poets.

Reviewer bio:

Paul Telles is a poet and Yoga teacher who lives in Beaverton, Oregon. His poems have appeared in Verseweavers, Children, Churches and Daddies, and Currents, a journal published by the Body-Mind Centering Association. He is a winner of multiple Oregon Poetry Association prizes, including an Honorable Mention in the Traditional Verse category in Fall 2019. He is a two-time finalist in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association literary contest.