Catherine Daly's Locket
A simple pendant on a gold or silver chain: old-fashioned, sentimental, and traditional. Not exactly the words that would come to mind while reading Locket, Los Angeles poet Catherine Daly’s second book of poems, the follow-up to DaDaDa (SALT Publishing), also released in 2003.
Ms. Daly brings a wealth of ideas and experience to her writing that befits her dual coast history. She obtained an MFA in Writing from New York’s Columbia University, where she was a Merit Fellow, and her undergraduate degree in English with concentrations in Mathematics and Religion at Trinity College in Hartford, CT, where she was an Illinois Scholar. She’s worked as a software designer, a NASA engineer, a teacher, critic, writer, poet, and entrepreneur and is affiliated with Beyond Baroque in Venice, CA and the Valley Contemporary Poets in the San Fernando Valley.
Locket’s comprised of 70 poems that take the reader to Canada, Ireland, New Orleans, and Hollywood, among other locales, but it is not merely a poetic travelogue. It also explores the beautifully plain geography of the breakfast table, the bedroom, automobiles, marinas, long walks and fast rides. It is as much about our earthbound existence as the wondrous astronomical skies that envelop us. The collection is wholly about love: of others, of objects, of nature, of the arts and sciences, of being in love, and love of love itself. The collection overall is vibrant, sunny, and eclectic.
But like gravity, what goes up must eventually come down and so it is with Locket, which tries to impress but instead, overwhelms. The collection is weighty but not centered; it is elegantly simple but also overly erudite and clunky. Such erratic structure is bewildering and disconcerting and interrupts the flow of the book. Several times a dictionary is needed, only to lose the rhythm of a poem, as in this stanza from "Latin Kiss: Love’s Language":
“Levator labii inferioris, superioris, pucker
while the genio-hyo-glossi muscles
thrust the tongue.”
The medical lingo unfortunately cools what would otherwise be a sizzling poem about the anatomy of love and one ponders, must it be so clinical? Where is the metaphor? But perhaps that’s the point, to experiment with love in a deliberately literal um, vein.
Or consider "Osculate," a poem about the history of the study of curves in mathematics:
“Hypatia commented Apollonius’ Conics
and made an astrolabe to measure
stars’ heights before the sextant
blinded its users, leading to the pirate eye patch.”
The stanza is mind-boggling. Who are Hypatia and Apollonius and what exactly did they discover? What is an astrolabe, a sextant? How can an otherwise technically worded stanza end so awkwardly with such an ordinary, if not childish image of a “pirate eye patch”? Asymmetrical language or images in Locket’s poems at best are avant-garde but still accessible and involving; pretentious, vague, and distancing at their worst.
Some poems are reduced to easy list making and alliteration while others end on the wrong foot. For example, the last stanzas of "Wintering:"
“The sun falls through our fingers rapidly now
and we take to lamp-lit rooms.
We guard our defenses
and cede thrumming to the night.
The drones drop dead.”
Locket is most impressive when it doesn’t try so hard; the language is subtler and more grounded. The last half of the book is considerably better than the first, as poems build at each turn of page and the work begins to soar. "Love Potion Recipe" is delightfully e.e. cummings-esque:
“Oh how you
I love how
you are love a
and ends with a nice Daly-ian twist:
how I want
do the math.”
"Dream Date," though overstuffed with esoteric fashion references, has a pleasant New England feel to it as well as a hyper real, almost REM inspired dreamscape, bringing a fresher perspective to our romantic imaginings of the ideal mate. Other standout poems include "Grain," "Corn and Vine," and "Go", Then for their humor and musicality. "Same Old Song" is the collection’s longest poem at 5 pages, which moves through the many different forms that shape love. "Locket," the collection’s title poem, is an unsentimental look at love as neither an institution such as marriage nor the commercial value we place on it in the form of gifts, greeting cards, and engagement rings. Nor is it the sentimental memories we attach to it. "Locket" seems to say that love is actually closer to death and the tenuous nature of life:
“Hearts can be replaced or repaired…
can be rendered and sundered.
Love rushes death.
The world is no wedding”
“The seat of emotion is nothing like a card,
nothing like a rose or lily, not a locket, not at all,
at all, not a key and lock.”
Love is not the ideas that we attach to it but the experience of emotion, which is subjective and hard to define. Whereas the heart can be scientifically defined and repaired or replaced, love cannot be measured on an EKG or defined in a textbook. It cannot be replaced by something else and its existence is only finite in one’s death.
Locket, despite some considerable unevenness, is an inventive book of poems that looks at love in familiar and unusual guises. It uses language creatively and experimentally and though it sometimes fails, it also succeeds, not unlike love itself.
(Locket by Catherine Daly ©2003, 80 pages Tupelo Press, ISBN: 1-932195-09-2)