KR Reviews

On You Darling Thing by Monica Ferrell

New York, NY: Four Way Books, 2018. 88 pages. $15.95.

What role does luxury play in the most everyday details of life? When shall we consider luxury more than simply aspirational and accept its arrivals and subsequent presence, whether ghostlike or tangible, in our lives? The speakers in Monica Ferrell’s second collection of poems luxuriate in things they may never have asked for, yet suddenly no longer wish to live without, trapped in an ever-shifting “. . . pageantry of what.You Darling Thing opens with a nearly-baroque layering of images, sounds, and density, captured and displayed for readers in a Fabergé egg-shaped courtship, beginning with a first date and ending with a literal point of no return to the uncoupled past: “The identity of the bridegroom is slowly revealed. / There is no turning back from that face.” The poems that move the readers through this courtship cover a range of non-pragmatic and gendered items, “ermine muffs, glasses that sang out like sirens . . . My pearl-crusted carriage” (“Beatrice D’Este”), and endow these objects with a sense of doomed pleasure, of needs that will not be met. In “The Lace World,” we see how “a tiny decorative lion dances in a frieze, / a woman, needy arms outstretched, holds on . . .” as the collection continues its inexorable movement toward coupling and its rituals.

Before reaching the last poem (“Days of Oakland”), we have witnessed a litany of luxurious brides in this stunning collection—“Savage Bride,” “The Tourist Bride,” “Bride Dressed in Fur and Steam,” “Bride of the False Coin”—and we have witnessed “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even,” but it is in this final poem that we see the bride’s resignation to the end of her story. After marriage, she is no longer a bride, so what is she? What has she become? Like a group of semi-obedient tourists, the brides in You Darling Thing are willing to tour both “The Fetus Museum” and “The Sleeping Husband,” then to visit and be guided through exhibits of animals and art objects, and—finally—to ponder their own journeys toward and into transformations they may not have asked for, but will for now accept.

When we do speak about luxuries, tangible and otherwise perceived, we must also think of the body, of the dubiousness of the health we take for granted until it’s gone. In “Physical,” the speaker opens by claiming that her “eyesight is getting better, / but I confess my lungs and heart are shot.” How must we balance the luxury of possessing life against the inevitability of trading it in for death? Perhaps the analogy to be made here comes closer to the end of the collection, in “Funfair in Hell,” in which “The proprietor wears a flickering smile / pretty as the word syphilis.” The beauty of language conquering the ugliness of what it describes becomes the sudden focus of this poem, shifting and transporting its readers from the bewilderment of the unanswerable questions about our own lives and how we pass the moments comprising them.

To have become brides at all, like Frankenstein’s monster, the monster’s bride, and even Galvani’s splayed laboratory frogs waiting for their jolts, the women in these poems, now betrothed, will become something else. After inhabiting the roles of brides, they will move into a new sphere of existence, one in which they are wives, perhaps eventually mothers, as well. The speakers in You Darling Thing may have begun by looking for love, finding that the other inhabitants of the dark bar are willing to join the ritual: “We circle each other the way flecks of dirt / together revolve towards a sink’s metal hole.” And yet once they have acquired it, what is to be done with the results?

In Betty Smith’s semi-autobiographical novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Francie’s mother allows her family to have coffee, along with the ritual of preparing it. They struggle with their bills and finances, but this luxury—one which Francie and her brother rarely even drink—brings them great joy and allows them a connection with people who are more financially stable: “She was richer because she had something to waste.” We may associate this sense of wastefulness with human beings, but I’m also reminded of Brenda Shaughnessy’s poem “Panopticon,” in which she explains that the octopus’ greatest “luxury” is that it need use none of its eight legs for walking.

Throughout You Darling Thing, however, speakers and their would-be beloveds do locate luxuries no one can buy or even afford, not just health, but also privacy or freedom. As in Ferrell’s first collection, Beasts for the Chase, this book is filled with creatures both mythical and recognizable, almost fable-like in their representations. Woven throughout the tales of brides and betrothals are tigers, wolves, cows, and even “Cats, fevered, untranslatable,” reminding us—gentle readers—not to spend too much time pondering zoological symbolism, an uncertain terrain at best, and one which varies across cultures and time zones and personal topographies.

“Oh You Absolute Darling”—the poem which, for me, anchors this collection—details the astonishing speed and ferocity with which the erotic becomes threatening, even deadly, while still examining the necessity of possession and the responsibly of ownership. The title of the poem, explained in the Notes, is from Anna Karenina, describing the manner in which Count Vronsky addresses the horse he is racing, as he spurs it on to a mortal injury. The stakes here are much higher than a cup of coffee being poured down a kitchen sink. We see the demise of a race horse, among the most superfluous of luxury items, one which we know will perish thanks to the carelessness of the man on top of it, plying it with words which are not only false, but deadly. A similarly cautionary tone threads through much of this collection, and we see it repeated in poems like “Glacier”: “Every sixteen year old girl likes / A murderer for an admirer . . .” Is it causality or coincidence that the same girl could end up “Hanging like crystals in a cave forever”? Other girls in You Darling Thing “will wait in meadows hoping to catch unicorns,” but will end in “the well of dreams: their dormition” (“Laudanum”).

In the end, we return to Oakland, a landscape of police helicopters, unhappily coupled couples, animals in heat, and flowers opening in the night, “Unobserved, / Releasing their scent into everywhere.” The final luxury in You Darling Thing is perfume, one not intended for people to attract others to themselves, but one—like the octopus’ mimetic legs—for its proprietors to employ. Like the poems in this collection, they lure us toward them, yet function autonomously, unfurling into new revelations and rarer beings with every illumination.

Erica Bernheim
Erica Bernheim is the author of the poetry collection, The Mimic Sea, and of a chapbook, Between the Room and the City. She is currently Associate Professor of English at Florida Southern College, where she directs the creative writing program. Her writing has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Denver Quarterly, DIAGRAM, Iowa Review, New Reader Magazine, and Missouri Review.