"You are the man with whom I share a wall"
Masquerade, A Memoir in Poetry
by Carolyne Wright
Lost Horse Press
ISBN - 978-1736432334
Reviewed by Nancy Avery Dafoe
“You Are the Man with Whom I Share a Wall,”
“You are the man with whom I share a wall” (6-7,) wrote noted poet Carolyne Wright in her new lyric memoir, Masquerade, A Memoir. One line and we have both the intensely personal and a world by extension. Wright’s ten words within the context of her poem “The Putting-Off Dance” can be interpreted through the lens of race in America, as comment on the dichotomy between the sexes, on the unarticulated-unmovable between lovers in addition to racial divides: the invisible wall that separates.
Wright quotes W.E.B. du Bois from The Souls of Black Folk in Masquerade’s book description, openly acknowledging, “the problem of the twentieth center is the problem of the color line.” But Wright’s acknowledgement is more than historical, political, cultural criticism of race relations in the United States of America, and more specifically, in New Orleans. Her acknowledgement takes the form of cutting open her life to show the blood, the bone, the beauty, and the great sorrow of our failures to understand one another across that color line. This is no sociological text but a confessional of almost unbearable beauty.
Masquerade, A Memoir in Poetry is divided into six sections corresponding to periods in the relationship of the lovers. The first section, “Cape Indigo,” opens the book with all the doubt, tentative gestures of emerging love before Wright drops us into “Fore Seasons” and then “Crescent City,” as the second and third sections. The fourth section, “Notes from the Stop-Gap Motor Inn” precedes the weightiest section “Big Uneasy,” the physical and emotional locus of the book. Masquerade ends in reflection as in the sixth section, “Reflections in Blue” in which the distance of separation and finality still leaves questions: “What If?” asks the poet in which “adversaries/ in each other’s arms, both of us/ collecting life sentences like paychecks/ on the run?” (84-87).
Author of six books of poetry, including This Dream the World: New and Selected Poems, Wright is a Pushcart Prize winner for her poem “This Dream the World.” So, it is no surprise she is a master of technique and poetic form. In Masquerade, she employs the demanding sestina, the ghazal, uses a modified terza rima rhyming pattern, creates stanzas in quatrains, and other stanza arrangements as if they are her first language and ours.
While a narrative thread revealing doomed lovers trying to negotiate the rough terrain of racial identity in a racist land is richly powerful, it is Wright’s language play that is so arresting. In “1040,” the narrative persona intones, “Your voice Deep South under duress, / stress-dialect” (37-38). Wright’s mastery of diction and technique causes readers to anticipate and then be forced to reconsider, almost like the lovers in this haunting lyric memoir. “WHAM” (1) begins Wright’s “At First Sight,” as we feel the impulsiveness of new love with the poem ending in word and sound play: “Cupid’s curse/ or Caliban’s cri-de Coeur?” (13-14).
As the dramatis personae reflects on the lovers’ time together, it is we who fully recognize that these two artists from other races, from other cultures have misrepresented what was, and we see through their self-deceptions, even their good intents in “The Putting Off Dance.” Wright allows us into their intimacy and their pain in this poem: “Your honey and mulled wine/ win this round, your tongue-tied plea/ I never quite believe, but my alibis/ ride a tilting raft” (29-32). Their denial is born in paradoxes inherent in love.
In her triolet, reminiscent in form to the French rondeau, the poet begins with a wistful longing of love that was: “We make love only once in the dune shack” (1). “Triolets on a Dune Shack” ends with inversion, “We never made love, we say, in the dune shack,” (15), those once-upon-a-time-lovers now denying even their lovemaking and in evident denial about their relationship.
The poet is fully aware of the side she has chosen to represent the lovers’ relationship as she noted in the book’s description: “Work that I am aware of in this category is the writing of Hettie Jones (particularly her 1990 memoir, How I Became Hettie Jones) and the novels of Susan Straight. In both Jones's and Straight's work, I am edified and inspired by the courage of the women (both the female characters and the authors themselves) in the wake of separation and divorce, single motherhood, and literary careers overshadowed by the assumed prerogatives and privileges of male.”
In spite of this claim, readers will feel the point of view of the man as well. We have his actions, sometimes playful and sexy, as found in “The Putting-Off Dance” lines: “In jest you press a stethoscope/ to my wall, X-ray vision switched on full/ like figments of wishful thinking” (15-17). We have the male artist lover, “Humming a blues riff from far inland, / you lay the moon shells I give you/ on your table's little dune of letters” (1-3) in “The Putting-Off Dance.” We also discover his gifts that are broken before given as in the lines, “You give me a turquoise/ amulet with broken clasp, its damage/ unexplained as women who ring for you/ on the downstairs phone” (32-35).
Even without the bits of dialogue that link the poems to their exchanges, we know the lovers’ communication will be strained as, “Rain squalls off and on/ all evening like a difficult conversation” (54-55) from “The Putting-Off Dance” verse. These two young artists want each other, but their divides are great as Wright suggests in lines from “Of Omission,” such as, “How do we face each other across/ the kitchen table, and later the insomniac/ laundromat whose walls blare heavy metal/ above the roar of spin cycle?” (40-43).
In “Faubourg-Marigny,” the artist/lovers take up resident on “Royal, between Piety/ and Desire,” (1-2) in New Orleans, but their passionate affair immediately reveals omens of doom as they find an apartment:
“The old slave quarters,
shotgun flats with barred windows,
antiqued bronze plaques
and rows of mailboxes
by the door, their decor
chic-macabre: the planter's mad widow
bursting into flame,
a houseful of servants going down
like moses in their chains (3-9)
We should not be at all surprised by the outcome of this affair. As Wright’s persona tells us in the title poem, “Out there, it's a gala evening/ of lost chances” (21-22). Even with “Momus Rex/ rid[ing] by on his palomino/ with a million-dollar smile” (22-24).
It is a credit to Wright’s lush storytelling as well as her poetic voice and considerable technical skills that we see failure written into these characters’ lines and lives, but we hope they make it in spite of everything. Like the female persona in this collection of narrative poems, we want the lovers to figure it out, to make their relationship work, but that, too, would be a kind of mask. Ultimately, the woman lover in the collection of poems cannot find a way past those divides. Finally, she cannot recognize her lover any longer even when he is in the same room: “Your hands/ folding faded denim/ are someone else's” (43-44) in the poem “Of Omission.”
Race, human frailties, and divisions lie at the core of Masquerade, a collection in which racism is both hidden and overt, as in the dialogue of a mother, “You need someone just like him but white” (1-2) from the poem “White.” Yet even the mother’s bigoted judgement appears to accurately predict her daughter’s “mortal outcome of the most faithful heart-muscle” (“White,” 47). Again, inversion follows in that the lovers are not faithful.
This gorgeous, personal accounting of love, betrayal, race, and America is at once confessional with intimate knowledge of two lovers, and at the same time a chronicle of our landscape shown through our greatest divide. The setting of the poems moves with the lovers from Seattle to the Faubourg-Marigny of New Orleans with its richly textured characters as seen and felt in “Endeca syllabics: About the Women (Alma, Ruthie):” “Ruthie the Duck Lady roller blading by in red lace-up boots (20-21) … and Jackson Brewery straw hat” (22).
Yet the emotional terrain of Wright’s poetry is the human heart with all its lust, love, and weighed loss as the female protagonist wants to “go home, but/ where is that? Our walk to the level crossing on the day you leave (52-52) … As if the vanishing point of rails/ is some other woman’s peril” in “Of Omission” (56-57). And her lover “withdraws into foglight and riverdust,” (“Another Country,” 7), as the woman drives, “away alone over a horizon other than yours” (30) in “Ghazal: Other Than Yours.”
Carolyne Wright lives in Washington, and she teaches at Seattle's Richard Hugo House, as well as at conferences and festivals around the world.