Shelley Puhak is a master of the dramatic monologue. She already showed us this in Stalin in Aruba, her darkly comic 2010 collection about twentieth century genocide. In Guinevere in Baltimore her talent is on display again. Indeed, the collection begins with "Dramatis Personae," the way any play does, with brief descriptive notes on the characters, and concludes, "Presented as it has been played sundry times in quaint Baltimore Town, jewel of the Chesapeake and Capital of the Land of Pleasant Living." You can just imagine Puhak winking broadly out at the audience here. For just as in the previous collection, there's some fine irony at work in these poems as well. (Indeed, the title echoes the earlier book. What next, Puhak in Prague?)
Or maybe, more accurately, it is the Speaker who winks at us. Identified in "Dramatis Personae" as "neither Maid, Wife, nor Widow" — which Puhak tells us in a note at the end was a seventeenth century equivalent of calling somebody a whore — the Speaker is the voice of the poems that are not explicitly attributed to Guinevere, Lancelot, Arthur or anybody else (Betsy Patterson Bonaparte, Lady Elaine, Lancelot's "Baby Momma," to name a couple). So right away we know that the "Speaker" will be lacing her observations with a good deal of irony, not a completely "sincere" narrator, when she comments on the characters. This voice, crackling with acerbity, with attitude, was all over Stalin in Aruba.
But this collection is much more sophisticated than her earlier one, much more accomplished. The poems are, well, so much more "poetic"; Puhak's voice seems more confident, her control of the "story" so much more assured. As Charles Simic, who selected Guinevere in Baltimore as the winner of the Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize, writes in his Foreword, it is the sheer brilliance of the individual poems that makes this collection work as a whole. The brilliance is on display in her imaginative, supple use of language.
Puhak groups the poems in threes, around a central image or conceit. "Letter to an Old Flame," "The Great Fire of Baltimore, 1904," "The Lexington Market Fire, 1949" is one example, the poems clumped around the image of fire. These triads focus attention and in some cases present a counterpoint, almost an Hegelian thesis-antithesis-synthesis construction. There are 16 groups of 3, 48 total poems.
The story of Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot, which is a sort of ménage a trois, after all, gives rise to one such grouping around the conceit of geometric design (think: love triangle, but don't think too hard about it). Here, Puhak gives us "Confessions for the Bromo Seltzer Tower," "Guinevere, Thirteen Reasons to Be Ardent about Euclidean Geometry" and "Lancelot, Fancying Himself a Playboy Astronomer."
Or in another triad, organized around the idea of trees, we have the Speaker's "Waiting out an Election," paired with "Guinevere to Lancelot in Role-Play: H.D. and Pound," and "Lancelot after Being Caught Downloading Porn." Guilt is an emotion that runs throughout this story of adultery, and it's potent in these three ("Oh how pleasant/to forget that not love, but fear roots us," the Speaker concludes hers). See how beautifully and skillfully Puhak uses the image of the tree in "Lancelot after Being Caught Downloading Porn."
Look. When the arborist called — the old oak
in the yard was too far along —
I sobbed in the Target parking lot, recalling
the birch of your body and the oak
of my own desire, pyramidal in youth,
thinning in autumn. And the day after
the machinery came, the cat
had to be put down. O! the simplicity
of a needle after so many tools with teeth:
saws, chippers, grinders. I'd think the cat
imperative and the oak incidental
to our story, had the arborist not said
deciduous over and over, explaining how
this oak, startled as a sapling, had always
been hollow. And now even its stump
gone. Easy, too easy, to let the cat
crumple. Someone came with the needle, someone
hummed among the last fingers of leaf.
Look. A hollow tree stands only on the new
wood it urges up. I'm only hunting
for a bit of bark to peel back, the surprise
of the pale just beneath, the dappled
birch of any body. Put away your quivering lip,
my dear. We were always deciduous.
Not that Guinevere in Baltimore is a barrel of laughs, but in staging the drama of marital infidelity that is at the heart of the Arthurian legend in Baltimore rather than in fairytale Camelot, updating it to contemporaneous status, as it were, Puhak shows us the implicit low humor and the everyday heartbreak at the core of the story, stripped of the grandeur of high moral aspiration and court pomp and nobility. Indeed, the Baltimore references abound and for those of us who are suckers for them, they delight. The book cover, in fact, shows the Bromo Seltzer tower reflected in the glass post-modern architecture of an office building. There's a poem with Guinevere and Lancelot at the Walter's Art Gallery, one with Lancelot at Fort McHenry; Home Depot and Starbucks are here too, and although these places are ubiquitous, somehow they feel very Baltimore in Puhak's hands — we could be on Old Court Road, or Roland Avenue.
This collection is truly a delight to read, and that's about the best that can be said of any literature. Writing a review of Guinevere in Baltimore is not unlike trying to describe a wine by its elements, its body, its tannins, its "oaky palate," its whatever those guys on the radio say. Bottom line is, did you enjoy it?