Jonah Davis on GLOSS, Rebecca Hazelton’s new poetry collection

Love is unworldly and nothing comes of it but love.
William Carlos Williams

If the seductive cover, with its sensual cover image split in half, its glamorous pinks and reds, and the title’s undulating cursive font—if these weren’t striking enough, Rebecca Hazelton’s new book of poems, Gloss, begins with the attention-grabbing poem “Group Sex.” What could this possibly be about? Will we be thrusted into a visceral (even explicit) scene? Not quite. Ironically enough, the poem’s very first line doesn’t pertain to group sex at all. Rather, it pertains to us: ‘There’s you and your lover and there’s also his idea / of who you are in this moment, and your idea of who he should be.’ This isn’t group sex. No—this is just two people. It’s you and your lover. In fact, the only group sex occuring is the imagined selves you and your lover dwell on. It’s both of you, but it’s also ‘the other him, the one who never forgets to roll the garbage can / to the curb’. It’s your imagined selves—you know, the ones ‘you could watch […] all day—those toned limbs, / the faint perfume rising from their skin.’ A blend of excitement and poignancy, “Group Sex” sets the tone for the three-part experience Hazelton will take us on for the remainder of the book; this part, of course, being “Part I: Adaptations.” And it makes sense. For these poems, if anything, involve binaries of love, dichotomous relationships—real and imagined—and the more insidious underpinnings beneath them all, which we too often choose to overlook for the sake of—for the sake of what? Hazelton’s poems might provide an answer.

In a period permeated with social media personas, the ostensible easiness of becoming a viral sensation, and the ever-so-popular buzzword “fake news,” not being real to ourselves and others feels increasingly endemic to our relationships, both new and old. Sure, we may not intend to be “fake.” But it’s since become an integral phenomenon within our experiences—especially of a romantic nature. We look no further than “Homewreckers,” immediately followed after “Group Sex,” to gain a sense of the set of themes that Hazelton unravels throughout Gloss: fraud, double-sidedness, and the masks we wear in relationships. Read like a series of brief text messages, the couplets of “Homewreckers” fit its tone: wryness. In what appears to be the speaker speaking to a former lover, or at least someone they know well, the poem puts pressure on the the seemingly lavish movie-lifestyle of Southern California. ‘Say good morning to the good girl beside you’ (the one you will probably leave, or the other way around), ‘Say hello to good decisions’ (which probably won’t be good decisions), and ‘The bread and the toast’ this life will depressingly become. And, just as much as we crave a knowledge of our own ratings, there are ratings for the breakfast the speaker is referring to in these two lines; ‘There are ratings for content and there are ratings / for effectiveness. Give this breakfast a thumbs-up.’ I can’t help but think of how often I have chosen not to see a movie because of its ratings that are only a Google search away. Even the following poem, “Recast”, deals with individuals who don’t know what to do next because it’s not in the ‘script’ of their life. In any case, ratings dominate media and entertainment outlets. And, if we take “Homewreckers” as an uncovering of the ‘set piece’ that is life in LA, ratings dominate our romantic interactions, as well.

Unsurprising, then, that the next part of Gloss is titled “Part II: Counterfeits.” If the previous section laid the groundwork for relationships that aspire for a kind of realness, then this section enlarges such an aspiration. Take “The Room Where They Are Lawless,” for example. Its tone reminds us of what a legal document might sound like. However, this is no legal undertaking. Instead, it’s—apparently—about love making. But can this even be considered love making? The interaction between the speaker and whomever the other party is feels as cold and lifeless as a subpoena: ‘With the formal negotiations done, / with the papers signed / and consent obtained, / finally, the obligatory / biting of the shoulder … / and the subsequent nuzzle / which may result in but will not exceed / two items of clothing tearing.’ Where is passion? Where is love? If we take the title of this section seriously, there ultimately is no passion of love—these scenes are counterfeits for those words. Perhaps it is only in our other selves or, such as in “Group Sex,” perhaps it is our imagined selves that allow realness to come in. After all, ‘When he is a woman the love feels more / real.’ A searching for realness permeates, seeps itself into the ink of every page. And its resonance is the feeling that, yes, these portrayals of love and life have a realness to them in the end. That is, despite the poems which depict a lack of realness in others’ lives, we understand that we may very well do the same things—we are all hypocrites, in some shape or form. Within the fakeness of the speaker’s interactions we understand a realness within ourselves and our own lives. We are always pretending—pretending to be a certain way, pretending to be with other people ‘until we’re with other people.’

I wonder how much William Carlos Williams, whom I’ve quoted as the epigraph of this review, Hazelton has read; if not least for the lines in “Self-Portrait with Your Head Between My Legs,” ‘so much depends on / the idea of breakfast,’ which reminds us of Williams’ famous “The Red Wheelbarrow” (‘so much depends / upon / a red wheel / barrow’). But when I wonder how much Williams Hazelton has read, I’m thinking of poems such as “I Animal You”, which, in a more or less vague fashion, reminds me of Williams’ “This is Just to Say.” It’s probably the parallels of notes that appear in both poems (the note in Hazelton’s poem is an accusation; the note in Williams’ poem is an acknowledgement). Though the content of the note in “I Animal You” is dissimilar from “This Is Just to Say,” I believe the notes share a common thread. In Williams’ poem, the speaker mentions in a note to his partner that he ate the plums his partner was most likely saving for breakfast. However, there is the sense that the speaker is being sneering about it—he gloats over how delicious they were. But what makes this poem similar to Hazelton is that in both cases love is there only in name. In a word, love is a nominal exchange. We read “This Is Just to Say” and Hazelton’s poems thus far and realize these relationships have much darker currents running beneath them. This is not where real love can be found. So where can it? The final section of Gloss offers the realness we have been searching after thus far.

I remember sitting in a class at my college on day. The class, that day, was held in the college chapel, where portraits of previous presidents of the college hung, monumentally, around the walls. My professor told the story of one portrait in particular we were examining. He said the depicted president asked the artist to not “make me look defeated,” since this president had lost loved ones shortly before the portrait was underway. It’s fitting that the final section of Hazelton’s book leaves us with “Part III: Self-Portraits.” Still examining binaries of relationships, the opening poem “Self-Portrait as Unsent Lines, Unsent Letter” lives between the tangible and the digital. On the one hand, ‘I am enclosing a photograph’—a real thing you can hold; on the other hand, ‘I am attaching an image’—worthwhile, but not physical. And, continuing the tone of cold, clinical relationships, in “Self-Portrait as The Good Wife,” we come to the realization that ‘Every partner begins as an associate.’ How dreadful. In fact, most of these relationships are just that—dreadful. No wonder why Hazelton, after all this time, seeks other worlds, such as in “Self-Portrait as Postscript,” wherein the speaker claims ‘if the sky is the same in your world / as in mine, then it is as it was … / and the once again and the never more.’ The only refuge for the maliciousness that lies beneath these relationships is, indeed, in other worlds. We may only find realness in a place that is not here. Again, it is no wonder why the final section of the series of vignettes that is Gloss contains sets of self-portraits. This is because self-portraits allow Hazelton to put herself in her own imagined situations, her own imagined worlds. Self-portraits let us inhabit various conceptions of ourselves; we can be whoever we want to be.  

The experience of reading Gloss was jarring. Jarring in the sense that the book did decisive work to not only poke fun at but, what is more, to call our attention to the things which pass out of our line of sight in relationships. We may believe everything is fine; that since we are in a relationship this supposedly means we are in love. But Hazelton does an adept job at disrupting that passive belief. I admired how, in the end, we are left with desire, ‘a desire uncurbed … / in the mirror, seeing clearly.’ Seeing clearly. Finally, the didactic experience of reading Gloss has left us with not only a clearer picture of the world, but clearer eyes to see from now on.

Gloss, by Rebecca Hazelton. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, February 2019. 88 pages. $14.95, paper.

Jonah Davis is an English major at Amherst College, whose favorite poet is Frank O’Hara.

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