A Few Kind Words for Lizzie Borden

If I were to say on bad thing about most of the poets I've seen graduate from the UCI MFA in Creative Writing program—and Lord knows I've said more than one—it's that the bulk of them seem to write with a dispassionate insularity that's maddeningly dull. They don't seem to care about their subjects. Indeed, they don't even seem particularly interested in their own poem. It's like the development housing of poetry: the structure's sound, but it's monotonous and goes on for miles.

Long Beach poet and UCI grad Allyson Shaw kills that stereotype in her first full-length collection, The Bon-bon and the Love Token. Here, she delves into what's commonly called “women's issues” with a near-bubbling enthusiasm, juxtaposing ideas and images in startlingly inventive ways.

In one poem, Shaw conjures a personal and claustrophobic image of a young woman having her period for the first time while playing the video game Tempest in a mall arcade. A menacing stranger looms as she plays, capturing the creeping anxiety that comes with change—any change—in a single harrowing stroke of the pen. “Could/he smell the red space of me,” she writes, “girl null and void?”

Shaw's great strength is the wellspring of compassion she brings to her subjects, her ability to trace a vein of pain and heartache that seems to rise unbidden from some common well, and to mine that vein for what beauty it hides. Even the oft-maligned Lizzie Borden—who, let's not forget, was never convicted of giving her mother 40 whacks—comes off well:

The busy bee has no time for tears,” writes Shaw, “I run my toes through the coals and think/of happiness, of the mewling of God and/and bladderwort, bluebottles, stains on my stockings.”

Allyson Shaw reads with Richard Emidio Melo at Book Soup,South Coast Plaza
Suite 2400, 3333 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, CA 92626, (714) 689-2665. Tuesday, August 24, 7 pm. Free. “The Bon-bon and the Love Token,” 2004 del sol press, 158 pages, $14.95.

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