‘Dialectic of the Flesh’ by Roz Kaveney
Author: Prathna Lor
May 22, 2013
Roz Kaveney’s Dialectic of the Flesh may be pocket-sized, but the poems in this book open up into pathways dark and guttural, witty and wistful. A finalist for the 25th annual Lambda Literary Awards, the thirty-one poems in the book vary between tightly constructed poems—sonnet variations and villanelles—to free flowing confessional narrative ones.
Offering meditations on corporal self-perception, love, abandonment, intimacy, and lost friends, Kaveney’s subject matter and minute aesthetic adjustments crack the poems’ conventions and constructedness into tiny but malleable surprises. Take, for instance, in “Tangle,” where “[t]he human heart is but a maze of meat / where muscle tangles in a gorgeous knot” (14). Or in “Awkward” where Kaveney writes, “[y]et sometimes, when love comes, you have to hurl / yourself into it, crazy for some girl” (7)—ostensibly playing on both the physical act of throwing oneself “into it” and the ill affects associated with it.
Other poems deal with aging: “All bodies of my age are made of scar / and callus and the aching bit of bone / I broke at ten” (“Calluses” 30); and “[m]y hernia just like a cooling fin, / I try to hide it with a shoulder bag” (35), Kaveney writes, in the haunting form of the villanelle where the lines “I wish I thought my beauty was within” and “My body is far older than my skin” serve as the poem’s two refrains.
Moving towards a political landscape, Kaveney’s “Stonewall” breaks away from the formulaic nature of the majority of the poems, opting for shorter lines, enjambments—a general loosening of form—that highlight and intensify the urgency of Kaveney’s imaginative reconstructions. As the speaker writes:
It wasn’t a bar
you went to
if you were
too poor, too queer, too young, too brown.
It was a bar
down the street. (44)
We don’t know all their names,
the people in the bar
when the police went in.
And then things changed.
So make them up. (46)
Kaveney goes on to provide several imagined lives and in these small, intimate worlds that she builds. Everything blooms visceral, becoming delicate, erotic, nostalgic, and elegiac. We’re thrown into a world where there are people “[i]n jeans that looked like you could peel them off / like fruit skin, / like peach skin, / like grape skin” (50).
Dialectic’s confessional tone allows for an intimate read. Yet, it isn’t burdened by an overbearing or self-obsessed tone. Rather, Kaveney welcomes her readers into a private world where looking isn’t supposed to be sympathetic or intrusive but honest—accented with well-timed quips that give us enough distance not to be fraught with despondence. “I’m sick / of being told I’m bitch, or whore, or pig,” the speaker in “Mirrors” writes, “of feeling less than loved. I’ll kiss the glass / and feel my own hands warm up my arse” (29).
As the title of Kaveney’s book of poems suggest, the bodily dialectics between the corporeal and the imaginative are echoed in her poems through the tensions between her subject matter and conventional poetic forms. The oft familiar structures and rhythms become acutely displaced, rendered just a bit horrid, or weird, by the turns put forth by Kaveney. “Fragile and yet tough” (15) is an apt description of these poems.
Closing her poem “For my Transdyke Sisters,” Kaveney writes that “[w]e bite and lick and groan in sweet surprise, / then check our lip gloss in each other’s eyes” (13). Here’s a book of poems to stand in with raw humility, anguish, and self-love.
Dialectic of the Flesh
A Midsummer Night’s Press
Paperback, 9781938334009, 64 pp.