“regardless of previous circus employment”

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These notes are part of my “read 100 poetry books in 12-ish months” effort. Far from an official review, they represent first impressions and provide some context for what I brought to the reading of the text.

29 of 100: Partial Genius by Mary Biddinger (2019, Black Lawrence Press)

Quick, personal thoughts:

  • Biddinger calls these “prose poems with five stanzagraphs,” and it was interesting to read this right after Garments Against Women, which was also formatted like prose on the page. Biddinger sticks with the form — including justified margins — for the entire collection, and it works. I don’t know about its intended effect, but here are some things the prose poems (and the repetition of the form) did for me:
    • The poems read like chapters (in no particular order, likely not even from the same book) or give the impression of old photo albums/scrapbook pages. Either way, Biddinger seems to use the the poems’ titles as a guiding principle for curating each collection of paragraphs/scenes.
    • The language in Partial Genius seems to work by accumulation (i.e. it builds momentum or it climbs or it digs deeper and deeper), so prose poem format is perfect.
    • In its repetition — and because the material contained within — the form disappears almost entirely. It becomes invisible.
  • All that said, the prose poem format played tricks on me, and I believe that was intentional. Where prose may imply narrative — and I even used the word “chapters” above — the content within each “stanzagraph” defies the narrative. By telling fragmented stories, these poems keep their distance somewhat. Like teenagers. (As an annoying, awkward mother, this just makes me want “in” all the more.) The narrative sort of “ghosts” us in these poems; it’s delightful, intriguing and tantalizing. Here are a couple examples of what I mean:
    • “Some people have the honor of witnessing miracles. Hedgehogs weed the garden then appear in tidy aprons. Statues scrawl and re-scrawl their own obscenities. I had no idea that twenty years later I would be bobbing in a cold lake, like sea-trash, until fished out.”
    • “I was not one to judge, but naked on a couch that was mostly wood, with a few cushions bearing pioneer-inspired prints, I thought I felt reverberations of a chainsaw. We read aloud from a short story and over-brewed the coffee. Ventured out early and had to make our own sun hats from newspaper. Several times we stopped so I could pin his boot back together.”
  • The poems capture truths, experiences and feelings for which ordinary prose/description/definition would fail. See what Biddinger does here to depict something like the doldrums or stagnation: “I frequented a desolate pie shop. The drinks were lukewarm and all songs on the jukebox were about dying. I did not do this because I thought it would make me authentic. I was lukewarm about everything, often felt war was imminent. I lived in a neighborhood full of homeowners terrified of being first to roll the trash cans down to the curb.”
  • Partial Genius delivers a master class in a couple of things I really want to learn to do better:
    • include more touch/sensation in my poems: “So many variations on Santa that some were basically a thumb of silly putty with two cloves and a little Vaseline and what looked like blood. Gummy candy with a wet center.”
    • make the abstract more concrete in surprising ways: related. abstract/concrete:
      • “When did desire become just another dangler on a charm bracelet, next to the flamingo or the handcuffs?”
      • “We were all waiting for ‘the crisis’ to arrive. Sweating on it. Trying to catch it in our lungs. Making it into a fish, then netting it.”
  • I love this: there’s a Spotify playlist for Partial Genius.

Lines I want to remember:

  • “flocks of balloons still humping the plastic bags designated to contain them.”
  • “When I walked into the hallowed basement of the courthouse, I felt like a manifesto or a particularly bold haircut. Perhaps it was the absence of religion, or the compressed dimensions of the bathroom stalls, where nobody could have ever worked out a way to fuck, regardless of previous circus employment.”
  • “Various past mistakes wanted to make amends. Yet I was no longer the girl with a hammer in her hand, teetering in front of a stained class depiction of the Last Supper. Restaurants that had housed our fondest memories were boarded up. In the old days that never would have stopped us, but now I had a mortgage and you had your various failed campaigns, including me.”
  • “I prayed at the wrong church. Loved the cafeteria for its potent cleaners. At home he kept several inches of water in the tub, for emergency. Someday we would all thank him, as we wiped our lips dry. The same song played back to back on the jukebox. In a photo booth, we took pictures of ourselves ripping up all of our previous pictures.”
  • “When you hold me, please know that you are not holding me. On graduation day, I watched a man tattoo AU COURANT around my thigh. It was like sitting in stopped traffic, not realizing every soul on the bus was looking down into your car, watching you readjust. Ten years later, I crawled up vinyl stairs for a paycheck, spent it all on gasoline to write my name in flames on the lawn.”
  • “Learn this sooner than later: everybody is looking for the same person. There’s absolutely no fuel for love, so don’t pretend to invent one. Somewhere, behind world-weary mini-blinds, the assistant manager takes off a blazer and wonders why it’s named after fire.”
  • “Have you heard the ditty called Oh Buttermilk Pie? Have you tasted the awful cascades of an unpracticed saxophone player? Listen: I got here. The magazine article I pretend to read in the waiting room reminds me that many people haven’t.”
  • “First the teenagers rebelled against history, and then they internalized it.”
  • “They commended our ease, but actually things were really hard. Standing like that? Pretending looks didn’t matter? Pretending looks mattered? It was like putting together a piece of furniture that was never intended to stand. And our lives depended on it.”
  • “You get older, and suddenly it’s no longer practice.”

What’s already been said about Partial Genius:

  • from Rhino Poetry: “Mary Biddinger’s sixth collection of poetry, Partial Genius, is infused with all things French: the Revolution, the prose poem, and the architecture—categories that call to mind the radical heights achieved by poets and artists who refused to acquiesce to social norms in favor of revolutionary acts. In other words, artists who have been the exception, who have snuck out the back door despite how everyone else falls into step.”
  • from Jennifer Militello on the book’s back cover: “Quirky, imaginative, and wry in tone, PARTIAL GENIUS is a book that thwarts expectation, turns convention on its head, surprises and delights. Within a narrative scaffolded like a twisting stairway or maze-like hall, these fascinating poems feature high school reunions, job interviews, broken dioramas, and birth control pills; they showcase apologies, parlor games, and consolation prizes, intricacies, illusions, and tricks.”
  • from Heather Derr-Smith on the book’s back cover: “Mary Biddinger’s newest collection of prose poems is one of the best books I’ve read on our historical moment and the decades that led to it. PARTIAL GENIUS reads like a dossier of the psychological landscape of late capitalist America and the end of empire. In the tradition of John Ashbery, but wholly original in her own vision and voice, Biddinger draws from a deep well of poetic intellect and wit to illuminate the existential threats and imaginative possibilities of our collective self-destruction.”
  • from Biddinger at her website: “The poems of Partial Genius build upon the form in a collective narrative arc, working in unison to craft a larger story where plot points shift via juxtaposition and association. Thematically, this book is post-youth, post-love, mid-epiphany. What do you do when you finally realize that you are really good, but only at unremarkable things? What value does memory hold when weighed against other heavier commodities such as money and time and conventional beauty? Partial Genius ponders the years spent waiting for reconciliation of past wrongs, the ownership of former selves, and the desire to truly fit into one landscape or another.”

Where some of the poems from this collection live online:

Have you read this collection? If so, let me know your thoughts in the comments!

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