Critical Commentary

Stunning, easily one of the best I've read so far this year., June 23, 2010
By Robert P. Beveridge "xterminal"

Karen Douglass, Red Goddess Poems (Cafe Review Press, 1992)

I have certain bookstores scattered throughout the east and midwest that I have a special affection for, usually because I found some gem or another at them. I'm not even sure most of them still exist; my days of vacations that morphed into long afternoons spent combing dusty secondhand bookstores are long behind me. But I was up in Maine for my brother's wedding a couple of weeks ago, and for this reason I had a chance to visit one of them, the Big Chicken Barn in Ellsworth. I made fairly regular trips there in the 1980s, and both my book and record collections were greatly enriched every time. I got there late and had barely an hour to browse this time round, which was probably for the best (I got out spending just $12, rather than the $75-100 I was expecting to, and with only one grocery sack full of books, which made my wife very happy), but the first book I grabbed at random out of that sack when I got home was pure gold--Karen Douglass' 1992 chapbook Red Goddess Poems, which I'd never even heard of when I grabbed it off the shelf. It was published by the Cafe Review, a Portland-based magazine that, I just found out with a quick Google search, is still around after all these years. While quality is no guarantee of survival in the small-press world, if their taste in everything is as impeccable as it was when they grabbed Douglass, their continued survival is very well-deserved.

When I started reading, I figured it was going to be a three-star book. The poems in the first half are solid work, strong without overly distinguishing themselves (which still makes them better than most of the poetry I've read so far this year). Good stuff, but not something that commands reading more than once every few years. Then something changes. I'm not entirely sure what, but the pieces get more expansive, darker, sexier, uglier.

"Lace clings to a body in need
of sun; a body should be licked to just
mocha. She wears her gown like an impulse,

put on so she can put it off. And we cannot
bring ourselves to say trite to a tight
bodice, low cut, scarved in opportunity."
("Silk Forgets that Bodies Crack and Burn")

Douglass pushes into someplace that is familiar, yet not. Someplace we don't think we necessarily want to go, but feel compelled to follow. And now that I think about it, that's a pretty darned good definition of poetry to go with my oft-used phrase about elevated language. Karen Douglass gets it. And while I'm sure this book has been out of print for almost twenty years now, so should you. A no-brainer for my ten best reads of the year list. **** ½