Review: The Lady Victory by Jane Vincent Taylor

The Lady Victory, by Jane Vincent Taylor, 80 pp. Turning Point, 2012. $18.00

            Commentators on contemporary poetry often contrapose narrative and lyric, attempting to trace trends in which one approach may be said to dominate over the other. One could, to be sure, see a certain reassertion of narrative in the new formalism and “expansive” poetry of the eighties and nineties, just as one could argue that the renewed interest in French surrealism via John Ashbery’s influence has lead poets away from narrative in the past decade. Whether this trend away from narrative results in a more “pure” form of the lyric, is, however, a matter of opinion.  But perhaps the point is moot, for Jane Vincent Taylor’s The lady Victory – like Eliot’s Prufrock or Yeats’ poems from Irish legend – makes nonsense of the distinction between lyrical and narrative approaches to poetry.
            In The Lady Victory, Taylor recounts the experiences of young women who are hidden away at the Our Lady of Victory, a home for unwed mothers. She tells also of the emotional life of the nuns who serve there. The narrative is fragmentary and elusive, and the reader’s inability to grasp fully these lives renders the poetry all the more poignant, as if we are privy only to the images and impressions that, by virtue of their emotional force, remain long after the particular framework of individual lives on which they hung is gone. The effect is somewhat like reading Sappho’s fragments or Spenser’s unfinished book of the Faerie Queene: one is struck by the simultaneity of absence and presence.  This impression is strengthened by the way each poem seems to stand alone and yet resonates powerfully with the other poems around it. For instance, “Friday Nights on the Road” conveys the young women’s frustration with their confinement by describing the way they would dream of automobile rides while cruising up and down the hallway in wheelchairs, “popping wheelies down the hall / on our little trip to nowhere.” The image is engaging and emotionally effective, but it is amplified by the very next poem, “A Votive Light,” in which an actual automobile trip is described as the narrator is taken to the hospital to give birth. The wheelies of the previous poem are echoed in the way the “station wagon hits all / the 23rdstreet pot holes.” Taylor masterfully creates overtones and echoes that keep the reader emotionally engaged.
            The best poem of the book’s first section is certainly “A Kind of Food,” in which Taylor’s elusive narrator informs us that “Banana is the food of charities / always on the table in plastic bowls / day old, week old, blackened.” She goes on to vividly describe “the dried up stems curled like nuns’ / arthritic fingers, eternal crooks.” The image is so effective not just because it is exceedingly clear but also because it carries so much of the young narrator’s feelings about her benefactors/captors. As the poem progresses we see these feelings turn inward:
                        we will know each other
                        when we meet in the real world
                        someday – the post office, supermarket,
                        cleaners – by the lingering odor
                        oozing under our skin, old oily shame.
To work so much emotional impact, so much emotional complexity, out of a banana is surely the feat of a very gifted poet.
            Even more affecting are the epistolary poems which make up the second section of the book, poems written in the voice of a nun placed in charge of the infants in the nursery. These letters to one of the children formerly in her care are tender and vivid, an exquisite evocation of love and longing. They are poems about our desire to belong to someone, but, in a powerful reversal, it is the nun’s desire to belong to the child that is so moving in these poems. She writes
                        You were a meteor falling into a cold furnace, your
                        mother’s sobs receding hour by hour, your new
                        ghost ancestors a huddle of dutiful nuns.
                        It fell to us to finally break the crusty cord. That
                        moment you were freed, untethered, floating with
                        the other beautiful sad babies bedded down in the
                        infant nursery. Except that you weren’t sad. We
                        were never sad, were we little falling star?
The suggestion of separation in the image of the broken cord is powerfully, because desperately, contradicted by the we urgently repeated in the last two lines. We see also, in the sister’s description of herself as a ghost, the longing to be made solid by belonging to someone. This deep longing is demonstrated also in the nun’s wild and tender variations in how she addresses the child: “Dear little flame,” “Dear flower fist,” “Dear birthday candle,” Dear little chirp,” “Little ear, dear angel drum,” “Dear little wind behind the rain,” just to name a few. These letters are so sweetly sorrowful, I recommend against reading them in public, as you are likely to embarrass yourself as I did trying to cry inconspicuously while waiting for my daughter’s swimming lesson to end.
            The book ends with a third section of three brief and lovely lyrics. These final three poems find a common grace in the human voice, in our ability to sing our sorrows:
                        I would make some everlasting blues
                        from the sound my baby must have made
                        to her new mother when she saw her, saved
                        from the orphanage, the pity of those nuns’
                        soft-singing world.
                        A song for nuns. A song
                                                            for the long sobriety.
Contemporary poets rarely get this mixture of sadness and sweetness so right, so close to the tone of Feste’s final song in Twelfth Night or the final stanza of Yeats’ “Song of Wandering Angus.” As the book ends, the narrator – perhaps many years later, perhaps seeking spiritual rest in a convent retreat—listens “to the sisters singing alleluia into silence.” The line sums up well the experience of reading this book, its play between song and silence, its affirmation of life even when the living is difficult. The Lady Victory is fine poetry because it is well-executed but also because it is well-felt. Regardless of the facts, the emotions ring true. Isn’t that at least one of the things we look for in good poetry?


In another month, the semester will be winding down and my students at Lenoir-Rhyne University will give a public reading of their work. It has to be during the day, so as to not exclude those with jobs; I think we're going to hijack our last class of the semester. That allows those within driving distance to invite their parents to attend, and I want that for them. Some of my students come from conservative families--more than one has a preacher for a father--for whom poetry is not part of the daily dialogue. Most are on their way to more practical jobs in sociology, teaching, or law.

The first time my father heard me read poetry at the University of Virginia, there was snow on the ground. I crouched in the passenger seat of his 1987 Chrysler LeBaron, blowing on my bare hands, waiting for the heat to start working. I hated that car. The door lacked a secondary brace to hold it open, invariably slamming shut on my calf before I'd fully sat down. The dashboard display was digital and tended to short out. He'd bought it for $1000 off the street. He'd bought it so he could lend me the safer, plusher Grand Marquis to make my grocery runs and highway drives. 

Did my father feel nostalgic, returning to Grounds? He'd attended UVA for a year, part of the winding path through several colleges and Army service. He'd been part of a drama production that staged T.S. Eliots "Murder in the Cathedral" in the chapel.

Did we eat dinner beforehand on The Corner? I can't remember, though I can tell you what I ate if we did. We went to Michael's Bistro and I ordered the Thai chicken curry with apricot chutney and basmati rice. This was in the earliest days of my expeditions to restaurants. I found the one dish that was Sandra-friendly, and I stuck to it.  

The reading took place in a student lounge I had never been to, over in the heart of New Dorms. The space was modest--a corner of bare floor and a standing mic were all that delineated the stage from the audience, which was a cluster of stackable chairs. The faces in the crowd were mostly unfamiliar, walk-ins who'd found the ping-pong tables were taken. None of my friends had trekked over from Brown College on such a cold night. I saw one person I vaguely recognized as an editor for one of the literary magazines on grounds. My name was called, and I took a deep breath. 

I read two poems I had written in my workshop with Debra Nystrom. One was about a crash that had taken place at an intersection near our home in Vienna, where a station wagon had been totaled, killing a mother and all four children she drove for her carpool. The other was this:


After he rapes her, he goes by the 7-11.
His tennis shoes squeak on the linoleum tile;
he ducks a little, embarrassed, cursing the rain, 
picking up a Diet Coke, rubbing at a stain that
lingers on his jean jacket, diving deep into his right pocket,
bringing out a mass of moist matted lint and little things: his wedding ring,
which he puts back on, a ticket stub, a wad from which he unfurls
a ten dollar bill.  Smiling, he takes his change and walks out, 
driving home in a mud-spattered Honda, moving on but,
shivering, she has yet to move.

Was my voice shaky? Probably. I know my hands were. I instantly regretted my choices, wishing I'd chosen something funny or at least happy. But I'd chosen what I thought were my best poems. I wanted to impress him. 

My dad drove two hours to Charlottesville to hear me read five minutes' worth of poetry. Maybe he knew, even then, that he would not be able to convince me to go into law or psychology or politics or any of the thousand important fields he believed I could succeed in. He listened to his eldest daughter as she followed a rapist to a convenience store. He clapped the loudest of anyone. Then he drove back to DC. 

The Next Big Thing

Okay, I gotta say: I am wary of the phrase, "The Next Big Thing," that titles this blog post. What does it mean for a writing project to be "big"? At what point is a book born? I worry that if I fixate on it being born, that means it can die. I worry about jinxes. 

That said, I've enjoyed the opportunity to read about everyone's latest writing projects. Plus, Lisa Russ Spaar asked me to take part--you can read about her wonderful new collection, The Hide-and-Seek Muse, here--and I never say no to the wondrous Lisa. So here I am. 

What is your working title of your book?

"Instantaneous Letter Writer," which is a phrase from the ungainly title of an 1853 book that partially inspired this collection, The Traveler's Vade Mecum; Or, Instantaneous Letter Writer, By Mail Or Telegraph, For The Convenience Of Persons Traveling On Business Or For Pleasure, And For Others, Whereby A Vast Amount Of Time, Labor, And Trouble Is Saved. 

For some months the manuscript lived under the name of "Count the Waves," which was drawn from a sestina I published with Poetry magazine. I love that poem. I am loyal to it. But at some point the natural evolution of the manuscript no longer embraced its tones or focus. Poor little orphan! Luckily, I'm thrilled to report it will find a book-home in Daniel Nester's forthcoming The Incredible Sestina Anthology (Write Bloody Publishing, 2013). 

Where did the idea come from for the book?

My first collection, Theories of Falling, draws heavily from the well of my biography and my early life. The three sections present a kind of bildungsroman: in childhood, in young love, and with a bird's-eye view to the larger culture. I Was the Jukebox, my second collection, actively pushes away from the presumptions of poet as speaker. Instead we hear from a jukebox, a piano, a minotaur, a platypus. In this collection, I wanted to strike an equilibrium by baring some personal revelations, yet also injecting some surrealist turns.

The series related to The Traveler's Vade Mecum series was inspired in part by Helen Klein Ross, who has solicited an anthology's worth of poems based on that volume. (A volume I'd love to see find a publisher....) Among other intriguing projects, Helen is on Twitter as Betty DraperEach of my poems uses a title that is a line from that book, as if part of some greater correspondence only partially available to the reader.

What genre does your book fall under?

Poetry. I am so happy to return to poetry after writing a memoir and cultural history. I enjoy nonfiction, but I will always consider myself a poet first and foremost. 

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Oooh. If I picture an actress sitting down at a cinematic desk to scribble these poems, I picture (hope for) Tilda Swinton. She'd kick your ass and you'd thank her for it. 

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

This collection examines how intimacy is both lost and gained over long distances. 

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

That's difficult to calculate; especially because there is no discrete "first draft"-ing process, just an endless series of massages and edits and reorderings. But I can say that the first poem I wrote that I knew belonged in "the next big thing" was "Parable," which I wrote in order to have something new to read at a Thacker Mountain Radio performance that took place on October 28, 2010. The first time I had the confidence to push-pin pages to the walls and tackle the manuscript as a book was in January 2012, at Virginia Center for Creative Arts. VCCA is, and will always be, such a valuable place for me. Much of "The Traveler's Vade Mecum"-inspired series was conceived there. 

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I'm aware of others who have used the epistolary conceit, but there is no one I have apprenticed myself to in that regard. Two poets on my mind during the drafting for this book were Jack Gilbert and Jane Hirshfield. I enjoy poems that make truth claims--bold statements about how the world works--and it is something I aim for in my work.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Poems come from an aggregation of lightning bolts and life experiences. Since 2010, I've put in more than 60,000 miles on the road. Any great surprise I would write about travel, about hunger? Love. Love stretched thin, so thin you see morning light through it. Salt. Oysters. Bacon. Scotch. Otis Redding. Walking. Dancing. The stars. The dirt. 

What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?

You need to read what makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck. I won't tell you to read this book. I can only tell you that I'm trying to write those poems. 

You can read a quartet of poems from the TVM sequence over at Virginia Quarterly Review. Thanks again to Lisa for the invitation; my fellow tagged poets are Mary Ann Samyn and Kiki Petrosino, who will be posting later this month.

The Ides and AWPs of March

February, you were a good month. I cooked in this home-away-from-home kitchen for the first time, a braised chicken-and-veggie thing that turned into a stew. I heard a lil' New Orleans jazz on Fat Tuesday. I played cornhole with Nick Flynn after a screening of Being Flynn. I tried all the beers at the Olde Hickory Tap Room. I saw Ted Pope (right) give a high-voltage reading that involved paper-throwing and, at one point, push-ups. I read for Lenoir-Rhyne University in front of a crowd that included my students and in one case, my student's parents, though, sadly, I did no push-ups. 

Also a lot of things that I can't share yet. A teaching fellowship. An award. A big byline, forthcoming. I'm the little kid who presses her lips together, mmm mm mmmm, shaking her head and standing tippy-toe: that's how much I want to share things with you. But until I have contracts in hand, no. I know how annoying that little kid is, hence my silence here. So we give you a little pause of remembrance, February...

...and we get back to the business of this blog. 

AWP is nigh. On Tuesday I'll drive to DC; on Wednesday, to Boston. Neither rain, nor snow, nor sleet, nor hail shall keep me from being there to moderate Thursday's 1:30 PM panel, "Lady Lazarus and Beyond: The Craft of Sylvia Plath," which will feature the voices of Tara Betts, C. Dale Young, Shara Lessley, Meghan O’Rourke. I pitched this panel out of a strong belief someone needed to pitch this panel, in the 50th anniversary of Plath's death. The caliber of writers who agreed to take part is a reflection of the potency of her work and influence. Please join us; we'll be at the Hynes Convention Center, Room 203, Level 2.

There are pretty great guides to the AWP experience floating around the web. Ploughshares offers a multiple-author overview (Matt Bell: "don’t approach a literary magazine’s table at the book fair as a submitter—approach it as a fan"). Rebecca Hazelton constructs a stream-of-consciousness narrative of bookfairing. ("There are 600 exhibitors. There are two levels to the book fair. The odds of having to actually make eye contact are almost nil. You can totally do this.") Cameron Witbeck itemizes absurdist steps to "Win AWP" for Passages North. Er, I hope it is absurdist; if you see me gnawing my third Blow-Pop in an hour, and/or climbing a tree to survey the crowd, you'll know he has proven sadly prescient.

This is not my first time at the AWP rodeo. I've been the person taking notes in the front row; I've been the person who gets sick on the first day; I've been the nervous youngin' fawning in the elevator; I've been to The Fancy VIP Penthouse reception; I've been a panelist and an offsite reader; I've tabled for four hours straight; I've been part of that last group in the conference hotel bar, the ones who retreat to a random floor's bank of couches by the elevators. I've made critical connections at AWP. I've been hit on. I've had poems solicited. I've been blown off in pursuit of someone more important. It's not comprehensive or universal, but this is what I know:


-Do not make getting coffee the first hassle of every morning. The line will always take a little longer than you anticipated. Your hotel room probably has a coffeemaker; request extra packets, and use it (emblazoned to-go mugs should be a more popular form of swag at bookfair tables; I demand a Write Like a Motherfucker thermos).

-Bring your own tote bag. The AWP totes are sturdy and increasingly better designed for books, so I use them all the time. I don't want to use them in a crowd of 8,000 identical totes, because that's how bags get switched and left behind.

-If there's a writer you want to meet, go to their booksigning. The after-panel conversations get pushed out the door by the next event; people have places to get to. That half-hour booksigning is a comparative oasis of captive time, in which the author will be grateful for company and you might have a real conversation. 

-By Friday late afternoon, your body will have noticed a complete lack of vegetables in your diet. Console it, please. I recommend downing a carrot juice, even if it is while on your walk to the hotel bar for a beer. Bloody marys are also an acceptable compromise.

-Change clothes once a day. Maybe you dress separately for the conditioned conference center versus chilly offsite events; maybe it's because your cute shoes can only be worn three hours at a time. Stop in the hotel room, excavate a pound of handouts and journals from your bag, wash your face, change, and journey on refreshed. 

-In choosing offsite events, look to see if the venue is hosting multiple readings that night. Be aware that intoxicated folks will linger from earlier receptions, congregating at the back and chattering loudly; they're done listening for the day. This may make your offsite event, no matter how worthy the journal, too un-fun to be worth the trek. 

-Stock up on a bottle of red wine or whiskey, something share-able that doesn't require refrigeration, and on your first day ask housekeeping for some extra paper cups. There will be that one night when you want to keep talking with a few folks, but the bars are closed and/or you're all feeling poor. Being supplied is a gamechanger.

-I know the bookfair is overwhelming. But if you stop in for one reason, let it be to swing by the tables for journals that have published you in this past year, to say thanks. Don't hold out for the editor-in-chief; this is not about networking. Thank anyone who is there, profusely. Tell them what publication means to you. It will make their day. 

-If you spot a Very Famous Writer in the wild, it's okay to want to say hello. But some moments are better than others. Surrounded by a gaggle of younger folks, probably students: Yes. Heading into or out of the bathroom: No. (I've BEEN that fan.)

-Treat yourself to one nice meal by yourself, if not at the conference then soon after. Get out your manuscript--short story, poetry collection, essay--and read it with eyes informed by all you've seen at AWP. If you're not in an editing mood, brainstorm a list of writing goals for the next two years. You really will see new possibilities and have fresh insights, which is why this maelstrom is worth it. Honor the fact that while the hobnobbing, hijinks, and gossip are fun, at the end of day it really is about the writing.

When I return to North Carolina, I'm going to resist post-AWP collapse. (The secret: an IV of orange juice.) On Tuesday, March 12, I'll be reading at Poetry Hickory and offering a craft seminar beforehand on "Sestinas: The Gyroscope of Form." 

Starting March 24, I am teaching an online workshop courtesy of the good folks at Barrelhouse, whose latest issue features a cover drawn by the inimitable talent Dean Haspiel; you can read my interview with Dean here. Eight weeks, eight poems, with options for side-discussion about craft and publishing issues. You can take part as much or as little as you want--week to week, from wherever you are--working with your schedule. It's a pretty sweet deal. Details are here, and feel free to reach out to me with any questions.

I've missed you guys. If you see me in Boston, say hello.