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The Sonic Imperative in the Prose Poem: a review of Elizabeth Colen’s Money for Sunsets

Money for Sunsets
Steel Toe Books, 2010

Years ago I read Eve Alexandra’s The Drowned Girl and felt powerfully, utterly right about the prose poem: here is a live site of fragmentation and fracture, an active agent of lyric and syntactic invention. The prose poem allows for a poem to be disassociative and coherent, to take spiritual leaps and rely on logical connections, and, most importantly, the sentence does not have to be the guiding force of a block of written text. Elizabeth Colen’s smartsexycool debut poetry collection Money for Sunsets has me reviewing, reviving, and revising my early thoughts. Divided into three sections—“Your arsenal,” “the silence,” and “refraction”–Colen’s prose poems fuse desire for justice, for love and for self-understanding and create an amped up, brazenly quiet poetic, often by syntactically “flex[ing] her fabulist muscles, her contemplative muscles, and her neosurrealist muscles,” as Denise Duhamel says in the Introduction to this work.

We often hear that a poem is anything that has lines. Prose poems, then, challenge us because, as we often say, “prose poems don’t have lines”. What we mean is that prose poems do not have line breaks. I would argue that the lack of line breaks does not free the poem from a responsibility to push the limits of what a line of writing can accomplish—musically/rhythmically, spiritually, emotionally, intellectually, bodily, psychically. Colen’s poems, a neat collage of free associations and rational links between ideas, work to unplace us, to discomfort us. These are poems both political and sensuous, acts of social justice and acts of (often) silly cleverness. “My Sunset City” takes advantage of the long prose line to create and re-create the line, while also creating schisms between fragments and inside of sentences.

Clean cut college kids. Utopia of freedom. Utopia of television screen
larger than my grandfather’s car. Of lax gun laws, large withdrawals,
huzzah of lockjaw. Take two boxes, two for the price of no, one. We
stray inside the city of sunsets, perilously close. The white supremacist
long-distance runner stuffs croissants down the back of his pants (1-5).

I’m happily surprised by Colen’s attention to sound and rhythm, to pacing, in that third line (and also a bit disappointed by the easy clever turn “the price of no, one”). The poems “11 Bang Bang,” “The Rules of Subduction,” “The Boredom of Obvious Things,” and “If Not the Boy” are great examples of Colen’s ear tuned to the rhythmic pacing of sentence, idea, fragment, and emotion. As well, “refraction,” is a delicious, delicate section, filled with longing, a tongue promising to word those tender buttons newly: “Sometimes I feel nostalgic about your dark mouth, the way things disappear in there” (54) she writes in “Trim”. As with the other sections, the poems are smart, adept, and stealthy: “I took a picture of the bed. I know it’s sick. The bed we never fucked in” (“Slack Lines” 1-2).

Too often, however, the ideas in Colen’s poems forge ahead and forget to pick music up for the ride. These are landscaped poems, which very often forget the importance of sonic landscapes. I am reconsidering my earlier thoughts on the lyric intensity and the lyric imperative in prose poems. Are prose poems still poems when the reliance on the safest sentences are perfectly safe? Or, to phrase this in a standard way, what properties make a prose block a poem? In “Take”, a poem that poses as aggressive and assertive, confident and entitled, I miss the sonic boom, the syntax of lust: “Shot. Sit. Before her. In the abandoned train car. Lenses almost singular, cameras aimed close, capture nothing. Smell her breath, taste the way her tongue could taste, tasting yours, mint” (1-3). There is conflict and awkwardness in this poem, lovers posing for an incredibly directorly cameraman. Yet, my mind sees and understands the awkward situation and my body doesn’t pulse, shaming away and blushing forward. Instead, there is the overstatement: “’Closer,’ he says, the reason for our mid-pose, frozen glare” (6-7). Sometimes the poems are too sure of themselves. They are too in the head and not enough in the spirit, the emotion, the body, the “floorboard stumbling,” “burst cushions,” “red, raw from rubbing” body.

And yet, there is a great and often not discussed risk in unmusicing the line, an incredible risk worth further review.

Colen has the intensity and vision to notice “your forehead hit a branch, and you left the forest scarred” (9). In fact, there is enough fire, wind, and wood to set the world on fire. I hope, in her second collection (which I’m sure will be just as smartsexycool as this first collection) she fashions a fan large enough to have us begging for water and cool breezes.

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Metta Sáma
Metta Sáma is author of Nocturne Trio (YesYes Bøøks, 2012) & South of Here (New Issues Press, 2005, published under her legal name, Lydia Melvin). Her poems, creative nonfiction, and book reviews have been published or forthcoming in Blackbird, Crab Orchard Review, Drunken Boat, Diner, Esque, The Owls, Pebble Lake Review, Verse, Vinyl, Zone 3, among others. She is the fiction editor of ragazine and Social Media and Marketing intern at Her Circle Ezine.
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