Meet Her at the Edge
A Review of bell lap by Laura Winberry | Indolent Books, 2018
I’m in a big box bookstore, curious how many local authors are on the poetry shelf, (one CSA definition for local: ±100 miles from point of consumption; a century ride, in cycling terms) which, The Iliad and The Collected Works of E.E. Cummings notwithstanding, is downright dainty in scope. bell lap, Laura Winberry’s debut poetry collection, is anything but dainty. bell lap is a book of muscular scope and of spokes. It is an alchemy of rhyme and percussive syntax, switching linguistic gears at light speed, dancing and thumping with a groove seldom traveled with such a disciplined abandon. To my wolfpack, my dears (my sugarskulld / slick diamond-boned / thick mistresses toes on the line These poems reek of a feral intelligence. bell lap’s poet herself tells us, As a book-length work of haiku and splintered haibun, bell lap… takes you to an animal place and back again. From “the warm up”: fembot hustlers in disguise—at a carnival of skinned vixenleg Athena was no figurine At her birth she gushed forth fully armed from the head of her father Zeus (wow) what if we all made our debuts with such poise and capacity sure Athena had her opposition cut out for her but where were we born what were we born into how many of us stitched into thighs skulls were brandishing thunderbolts before we’d even sucked our first bubbles of raw air Nine segments, take us from pre-race to post-adrenaline. This nine poem sequence is a suspended moment of the cyclocross circuit, the gritty professional sport in which Winberry distinguished herself. Time is one of the ways the wildness is corralled, at least enough for us to catch a spray of glitter in the action’s wake. The element of cycling is everywhere: we ourselves are on the bike as the poems present us with a before, during, and after with which to feel the ground—and the page—rumble beneath our fingers: our bodies a lithospheric intimacy most can only hope for This is time through a carnival lens, costumed and slightly hallucinatory. It is a way to get a bead on the body—its own form of containment—as an instrument of ecstasy, of communion, anti-transcendent. The poems celebrate experience as rooted in the body, and not beyond. Neither the speaker nor we are released from the body, but instead firmly clipped in, ice in our ears and mud smeared in every crevice and fold. This work is ecstatic, unabashed, epic, Greek, and definitely not romantic, as when the speaker references the domestic cyclocross with its piles of stinking, waiting laundry. This seems, playfully and tacitly, to call out Thoreau for the illusion of his independence, while still, like all art, implicating the artist herself: we are still fistfuls of childhooded adults pedaling through dusk-fields // into the Amer -ican experiment The title of the book, in its simplicity and music, brought to mind the poet Sylvia Plath’s novel, The Bell Jar, though Plath’s searing account of suffocation, museum-style exhibition, and exploitation of womanhood by an oxygen-sucking patriarchy may seem to have little to do with the wild kinetics of bell lap. Like so many people, I read The Bell Jar at a point of emergence. In reading bell lap, I felt a kind of unselfconscious physical response, a reaching out, a reaching back, an assurance that the jar could and would be lifted. More than half a century after the publication of The Bell Jar, Winberry prefaces her poems with a quote from suffragist Susan B. Anthony: “I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel…the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood,” and in so doing pulls a bright red thread through a history of ebb and emergence. So, maybe, hope is a thing straddling Krylon gold, a thing of spandex and glitter, a thing with feathers—if those feathers are fashioned into a neon boa, flying in a race-wind. If the rhythm of these poems is jubilantly percussive one moment and luxuriously lyric the next, the images are viscerally visual: come race day we are spiderlings …and I picture Louise Bourgeois’ arachnids lifted in a fierce wind as the sky is splitting and the split is puking and the hard earth turns into an epidermis of greased unpredictability hoarfrost-glinting dirt so heroic it knows not to let go At other moments the participants are figures in an eighth grader’s soggy diorama, …figurines spilling out wet Or, they are he-men, with your cloudboom of laughter // swell of bioluminescence and earthmilk It is in the segment/poem, “the he-men /split,” that the speaker offers what may amount to the most radically feminist of rallies: and when is it that we get to be utterly in love with ourselves When we arrive at the bell lap itself, the bell lap either years away or it comes too soon and nothing is not on fire We arrive at a crescendo, and we are yet in motion. The speaker moves from the collective to the environmental to the personal, with a perspective that remains in conversation with its environs; the speaker by herself does not create a world unto herself, but remains inextricably of the world. The racer is of the pack, on the track, and on to a moment of declining adrenaline I want to think of as para-spection, rather than introspection: and then at dusk when one coyote croons and becomes eleven The expression that comes is a communion with the world, a relationship with the ineffable that doesn’t relegate the illusory to the unknowable, unseeable beyond, but embraces it as evidence of a physical life: a fear that’s in the throats in the backs of the knees in the fight— flutter flight then lull— Reading bell lap, I am excited about the slick and slippery reach of language, ancient and new. I am freshly interested in form, and awash in the seeming bioluminescence of a body on a machine, in momentum, elemental, as both happening and metaphor. bell lap is a bacchanal, a dance party of a book, a rave where, to the rhythm of a thumping beat, you manage to have a life-changing conversation with a stranger. I can buy Laura Winberry’s bell lap on the internet via a variety of venues, with the least degree of separation occurring at Indolent Books, her publisher. I cannot, today, buy it at the big box, though the poet lives a scant four miles from the store. No matter: the poetry on the shelf is for birthday gifting, well-wishing: it’s for others. Instead, you best order on demand, poetry lover, because you’re going to want a copy of bell lap to call your very own, before you give it away to one of your own difficult-sweet Eves, he-men, or ragtag coyote companions: and when the human ache staring back at you becomes an open circuit of sheet lightning and flashbulb do not avert your body // instead gather it all in // ( what else is there)
Irene Cooper’s poems and reviews appear online and in print. She is a freelance copywriter, facilitates creative writing workshops in Central Oregon, and co-edits The Stay Project. Committal, her first novel, is forthcoming from Vegetarian Alcoholic Press in 2020. Laura Winberry’s debut poetry collection bell lap is available for purchase at Indolent Books.