“There is suffering in this collection and death, joy and heartbreak, and always, there is unyielding passion and unconquerable desire, the erotic silk strands down which each day slides.”
Ann Townsend has borrowed her title, Dear Delinquent, from Edna St. Vincent Millay’s method of addressing her lover, Salomón de la Selva. The lyric eroticism in this book, however, is Townsend’s alone, a volume of allowed and disallowed passions, a painfully precise investigation of love, probed, categorized, and dissected by Townsend’s disciplined, sharply delicate lyric stylus.
Townsend opens with her translation of Beatriz de Dia’s Occitan poem, “Estat ai en greu cossirier,” which Townsend entitles, “How Excessively I Love.” And these poems do reflect excessive love, wildly passionate excessive love.
These are poems of mystery and risk, mysterious because the love in these poems is mysterious, often dangerously so: as dangerous and edgy as Townsend’s distinguishingly sophisticated syntax.
“A compound smell of ink and roses/in that room kept unflowering//though the candle went unburned,//”writes Townsend in “Here Be Dragons.” In this room, irony pollinated “ . . . the ordinary words.//” It is difficult to recognize any ordinary words in these hyper-pollinated poems, fertile as they are with the scent of ink, roses, and candlewax.
Love married to passion crosses boundaries, and, given Townsend’s erotically inflected prosody, often sets those boundaries on fire.
“I eased the straps from my shoulders/and let them drop . . . ” she writes in the poem, “Meretricious Kisses.” Her lover looks on as she continues to disrobe, the ghost of rose oil permeating the lines. In this room there is no here but here.
“. . . Permanently/disturbed by passion, the room//rearranged its pieces—. . . ” writes Townsend in “Errors of Beauty.”
Townsend unflinchingly holds passion and beauty accountable for the pain and loss they contribute, as well as for their joy and ecstasy.
From the erotic assignations in “Hotel Phenomenology” from which the lover has to slip away to another life, to the almost formulaic tryst in the automobile in “Kissification,” Townsend is really writing about the heartbreaking uncertainty of the only reality we possess—the temporal. Not even passion proves antidote to the transitory.
“The Mind Is Its Own Place,” writes Townsend, quoting Milton, and adds, this time quoting Plato, “Like an aviary . . . /the mind is full of birds.//” Make no mistake; birds are here and gone, here and gone.
“On his hand, the ring/I hate . . .” Accidents of chance, these poems are not for the risk averse. This hated ring opens the poem Townsend entitles “Doll,” in which the speaker waits for her lover in an outer room, a room containing his mother’s doll collection: dolls—those timeless symbols—unfinished, incomplete, robotic little stand-in mannequins.
Nothing is easy or calm or reassuring in these deeply engrossing poems.
There is no fairytale happy-ever-after here. These are poems about passion in a world of shadows and secret rendezvous, of the mystery that sequesters loss as if to render it less destructive, the way the body might encapsulate and segregate an invading organism.
But passion springs from within the organism, from the heart. And passion is the fountain from which love drinks. Fed by desire, forbidden love may be bittersweet, but that doesn’t make it any less dangerous or emotionally stressful.
In the poem, “Lives of the British Poets,” the couple slips upstairs into the stacks of a bookstore at closing time. There, amidst the biographies of a collection of British poets, they “. . . resumed kissing/” in a room where “words matter . . .”
In these poems, words indeed matter, matter in a way hard to imagine in a more open relationship. Memories are memories of trysts. Words are intense, jewel-like, solitary. Solitary because the pains and the joys of this kind of relationship are strangely solitary, randomly rather than sequentially recollected and reconstructed, a collage of intensely eroticized artifacts.
Given the requisite nature of this collection, some of the poems leave the reader scarce space for orientation. The richness of Townsend’s emotional content, however, together with her prosodic skill, more than reward a careful re-reading of such poems.
There is suffering in this collection and death, joy and heartbreak, and always, there is unyielding passion and unconquerable desire, the erotic silk strands down which each day slides.