“for I am a dirty bird/no wire cage can save”

-Joan Larkin, “Chicken”

Joan Larkin has been praised extensively for her “ruthless” and self-examining poetry (LA Times, David Ulin), devoid of the trappings of cliché and sentimentality. Writing in the same kind of documentary poetics similar to Carolyn Forche, Larkin has a gift for making the private public, telling and retelling the story, and owing the truth nothing emotive. From Ulin’s review of Blue Hanuman: “For her, poetry is a form of witness; she offers no false hopes, no resolutions, except to reflect, as honestly and directly as she can manage, the complicated, at times uncontrollable, messiness of being alive… this is poetry without pity, in which despair leads not to degradation but to a kind of grace.”

The path here, then, appears to be one of grace, if not redemption. The poems in this collection call to attention the trajectory of a life touched by grief—it is enough to survive, it is revolutionary to thrive. Through the poem “In Your Side-Railed Bed, Faces”, we see the crux of Larkin’s voice:

brushed late nights on paper,
mouth-knots, dark inkwash eyes

staring into the abyss.
World tapes to the wall

of your next-to-last room.
After they moved you, no

more making. Your face swollen
and no sign you saw me

wearing the fright mask.
Grief, or my face under it.

The speaker in this poem recognizes the multiplicity of a self confronted with grief: the public self (masked, frightened), and the private self, the self underneath. Circling back to Ulin’s observations of Larkin’s work, it’s easy to see how deftly Larkin avoids the sentimental trap in writing about tropes of identity and death. If sentimentality can be explained as a lack of complexity (or “emotional purity” such as the sad plot line in the Titanic coupled with the incredibly sad Celine Dion song which shows the events of the ship’s wreck as only whole, perfect, unblemished sadness), then Larkin’s poems are anything but sentimental. Grief is not but one emotion, but a broken mosaic of them; when confronted with the inexplicable nature of death and illness and trauma, it’s more intuitively human to experience conflicting emotions all at once.

The complexity and multi-layered nature of grief and how it affects a person is similarly used in Larkin’s exploration of the self. Through the often harsh and unrelenting self-directed lens she uses to take her own inventory, there is a considerable amount of (often surprising) self-compassion and forgiveness. As if allowing a body to be in the world and to be both gracious and sexual and also ugly at times were a pleasure and a revolutionary act of self-humanity. What permission this manuscript gives, to arrive not only, as Ulin says, at a kind of grace, but also to a place of seeing.



Blue Hanuman
By Joan Larkin
Hanging Loose Press
Paperback, 9781934909386, 78 pp.
April 2014

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One Response to “‘Blue Hanuman’ by Joan Larkin”

  1. Sandra Gail Lambert 17 October 2014 at 7:37 AM #

    I’m thrilled that there’s a new Joan Larkin collection. Thank you, July, for calling my attention to it.

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