Sunday, April 20, 2014

Helens



I few months ago I signed up for a year's worth of New Directions'Poetry Pamphlets and (prose) Pearls, two series of chapbooks from a publishing company I've long admired but haven't always kept up with. As the books have arrived each month I've found some that I had already seen on the NDP list and knew I would like, like Paul Auster's The Red Notebook which I had read years ago in another format, and a few (definitely a minority) that I set aside after a quick skim. Bernadette Mayer's The Helens of Troy, NY arrived last week (coincidentally as I was re-reading the Odyssey in Robert Fitzgerald's splendid translation) and it's one of the better ones.


This is a modest collection of poetry, perfectly befitting its chapbook format; it's not particularly "literary" in a traditional sense (in the sense in which the poets I usually like tend to be "literary"), by which I mean that although the book includes, among other things, a couple of sestinas, a villanelle, and a sonnet, the language isn't particularly elevated or elaborated in relation to the kind of ordinary conversations that seem to have given rise to the poems. There's no explanatory Foreword or Afterword to the volume (nor is one really called for), but from what one gathers Mayer interviewed a number of women who happened to share a first name and a place of residence, and then worked scraps of their stories and conversations into something like a hybrid of oral history and found poetry, accompanied by black-and-white photographs of the Helens, most of whom are middle-aged or older. (There is one nude — named but mysterious — whom Mayer seems not to have met in person.)

At times fragmentary or cryptic, always unassuming, the poems nevertheless adeptly evoke the particularities of time and place, of what it has been like to grow up and grow old in a city that may have known better days but that hasn't quite given up on itself. (There's an awareness of decline throughout, but no self-pity; one subject proudly holds a bumper-sticker that proclaims "TROY: BACK ON TRACK!") The Helens reminisce about childhood haunts, favorite restaurants, long-dead husbands — or just about what it's like to be named after the most famous woman of antiquity. Names are important here; one of the women, Australian-born, bears the extravagant married name of Helen Hypatia Bailey Bayley [sic], while another, born Helen Mayer (but evidently no relation to the author), quips that she "once met rollo may's son & I thought i was more may [emphasis mine] than he."

Photo at top: Helen Worthington Bonesteel. Bernadette Mayer is now working on a similar project centered on Troy, Missouri.

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