Someone Else’s Wedding Vows, by Bianca Stone. Portland, Oregon: Tin House and Octopus Books. 88 pages. $14.00, paper.
Bianca Stone’s Someone Else’s Wedding Vows is a beautiful book. Published by the new partnership between Tin House and Octopus Books, Stone’s first full length collection of poetry explores the self from a distance in order to construct a clearer view of its movements and position within the larger world. Stone’s often passive reflections seem to come in after-thought, where intense happenings and the arbitrary cruelness of the world can be both muffled in intensity and made clear in its intentions by the passage of time. Stone’s poems seem to flow as if from dream to dream. Bits of the everyday are tangled up with the surreal logic of visions. By this logic, the real can only be expressed by the surreal; this is the only language it understands. A lover’s kiss is not a simple sign of affection so much as it is a blackbird or the action one must take to open an umbrella. The surreal is used a way to more accurately articulate the real.
Though Wedding Vows is masterful in this affect and gracefully crafted as a whole, it is ultimately not a book I would have chosen for myself. Though I greatly admire Stone for her multimodal work, her poetry comics which push and expand genre boundaries in the arts—I found this book disappointing in the fact that it seems uninterested in pushing boundaries. Her visual work is necessary and incredibly important to poetry. As a voice for the idea that poetry can have legitimate, worthwhile discourse directly with the visual arts, Stone’s presence is stunning and revolutionizes the way we poets must view all arts, not as disparate figures or as translatable languages, but as harmonizing equals. However, the things I usually like in poetry are louder, so raw and wildly human, that these poems of a quiet, contained imagination are deeply unsettling to me. Stone’s quiet domesticity and longing feels so wrong, so against everything in poetry that captures my heart, in those brazen poems I hold to me because they disgust and terrify and move me, that I’m not sure what to feel about Wedding Vows besides polite boredom.
The poems in Someone Else’s Wedding Vows are measured and perfect, each a lovely example of the ideal of contemporary poetry. I see the technical grace in these poems, the beauty in the collected and stacked images she renders. I understand that the things we experience as people, things like love and longing, are often too complicated to express accurately in words, and that Stone’s quiet and surreal world, populated by burning ships that flash on our cheeks, or quaint herds of rhinoceros to which we liken our lovers, become the only thing that makes approximate sense. But the problem is, is that I know this myself, and to me, poetry should make connections that are beyond what I can see alone.
These are poems that are easy to enjoy— pretty, with enough lines and moments that are surprising or moving to propel the reader through the book. Moments like these are present in “Reading a Science Article on the Flight to JFK” which churned my insides for its struggle to distance oneself from horrible, pervading grief, and in the long poem “Monsieur” where Stone’s speaker declares in righteous indignation,
I speak to a professional
who places a vase of flowers in front of me
the room smells like the person
who just came before
and I beat the air with my ultraviolet fist
In these moments, I want to crow with her, that we two together can turn our bodies to varying lengths of terrifying violence, that we must be together feared, that the vase of flowers that they seek to placate us with will suffice no more.
But the moment ends so quickly, and leaves me bereft and confused for this powerful moment we shared together on the page. And while these brief moments of surprise keep me reading, what Wedding Vows really suffers from is a lack of risk. In poems like “Dishes,” which offers no point of investment for me as a reader, aside the fact that I too wash dishes and sometimes also lament over the decline of my mental acumen and potential as I grow older, I feel lost as to what I’m supposed to take away from the poem at all. I’m not sure what the greater point of expressing these thoughts in a poem is, or what Stone finds issue with at all, except that she states her observation of these facts. I suppose we could conjecture to say that Stone is composing an aesthetic experience, and her beautiful, surreal imagery would certainly back up this assertion. But what transforms poems, what opens them up to possibility and connection, is vulnerability; knowing that something here on this page is at stake. In order to transform words from what else would be simply a collection of metaphors is the reader’s implicit knowledge (via the poem itself) that writing a poem, like all art-making, is a dangerous endeavor.
This is not to say that I am advocating for poetry to have something as dull as a point; this would be pedantic and wrong. But I am looking for moments of investment, whether emotional or theoretical, where I can devote my understanding. Wedding Vows does have risky poems, and these are the points within the book that I am truly hooked. There are moments in “Driving Our New Car” that break me. Stone gives her readers a small peek at the secretive, mysterious being that is mother, (“When I was a child there were always Mcdonalds wrappers on the floor” and “the car was always / an extension of her: parent, vessel”) before the speaker self-consciously skitters away. These moments of revelation, of intimate detail, are where the poem truly opens up; these are the moments of vulnerability that gives the poem a reason for existing. In these moments I am with Stone totally, but besides these appearances, that spark I’m looking for is too shy to really reveal itself.
I did not want to talk about Stone’s art at all in this review. I saw her talk at a panel at AWP this year, and she expressed regret that her art is so often what dominates people’s attention. In our visually soaked culture, images are easier to read and digest than poetry. I agree with Stone, and as someone who is also interested in the intersection of art and poetry, I understand the anxiety one has over one art potentially winning out over the other. But Stone’s art, now in the face of her full length collection, feels necessary. Without its ability to err towards risk, Someone Else’s Wedding Vows —for me—is lovely and nothing more.
Someone Else’s Wedding Vows is a beautifully crafted book. Its poems are elegant and graceful, touched with the surreal, and delicately floating as if from dream to dream. I love her description of love as likened to “odd toed ungulates” and I respect the quiet, reflective space this work occupies. If you enjoy the trend of quietly surreal poems, soaked with tender reflections on the domestic, then these poems are for you. If you are looking for something more radical, something that will change the chemical make-up of your bones, you may have to turn somewhere else.
m. forajter is a recent MFA graduate from Columbia College Chicago. Her poems have appeared in places like the Columbia Poetry Review, Black Tongue Review, Finery, and Radioactive Moat. Her chapbook, WHITE DEER, is available from dancing girl press. She writes at mforajter.tumblr.com.