Reviews of the Ephemeral

Coup de cœur of the week : a sample of Beth Gylys villanelles

In online magazine on June 24, 2010 at 11:23 pm

This is my coup de cœur of the evening, stumbled upon by chance in a case of poet/magazine/press internet hopping and I would like to share it with you.

It seems somewhat unnecessary to introduce Beth Gylis: she has two award-winning poetry collections under her belt and has been published in numerous prestigious journals including the Paris Review, The Southern Review, The Kenyon Review, The New Republic, Antioch Review, and Columbia Review.

It is indeed superfluous to stress that Beth Gylys is an ‘established’ poet, yet at the same time it makes the collection of villanelles published at the Boston Review all the more refreshing. On paper this combination: villanelles + ‘established’ poet might be assumed to equal a snooze fest on the merits of newts in the springtime but actually, the result are, well, young. She compensates for the occasionally forced rhymes imposed by the form with some twirls of relaxed American idiom. Those of you that hold the word accessible at bay with a pinched expression on your face would do well to look away now.

From bothersome preachers on public transport to basic sexual needs, the villanelles are by turn humorous and moving. ‘Preference’, to take one example, takes the decidedly unfashionable idea that S&M is not for everyone by contrasting it to the ‘gentle, easy way you move’. The result could be preachy but, well, we soon know how she feels about preachers after reading ‘My Savior in the Form of a Bus’. Sanctimonious she is not.

Yes, sometimes the villanelles feel like a skinny man inside a fat suit. ‘The Spectator’ flounders a little aimlessly once the basic premise has been established. It is saved, however, by the idea of empathy, brought out of the hat in a final flourish.

The most surprising villanelle of this sampler is perhaps Gylys’ parody of Dylan Thomas ‘Do Not Dive Head-First’. Just when you think you’ve pegged Gylys as a harmlessly entertaining poet, she kicks you in the shin and steals your wallet:

‘Though mud is fine between the toes, the blood
Is best inside the body. I beg you keep
Your head. Don’t dive into that puddle of mud.’

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