Hyacinthe L. Raven, Seventy Times Seven (Via Dolorosa Press, 2013)
Full, if kind of unnecessary, disclosure: I don’t know Hyacinthe IRL (not yet, at least), but her ex-husband has been a good friend of mine for some five years or more now.
So, here’s where I’m coming from. I’m not a big fan of narrative poetry. I hate book-length narrative poetry that isn’t chopped into separate bite-sized actual poems. (The last book I read like that I actually liked was Daryl Hine’s In and Out, which I think I read in 1992, and I may be misremembering that it isn’t broken up into separate poems.) It’s the kind of stuff that gets abused by poets that I imagine, in my deepest nightmares, sitting in their attics, looking out the little round window (only on the rainiest, most overcast days, of course), and writing while swilling laudanum straight from the bottle, maniacally cackling every once in a while as they add in yet another cliché, another rhyme pair that was old by the time Swinburne was dead, because Cthulhu forgive anyone who tries to do that sort of thing in free verse. It’s a recipe for disaster, pure and simple. It’s kind of like political poetry, about which I even have a canned response: “one hundred percent of writers who attempt political poetry and are not Carolyn Forche suck at it, and you are not Carolyn Forche.” I may have to put one together about narrative poetry. Which will say exactly the same thing except, for some reason I haven’t quite defined yet, you can replace “Carolyn Forche” with “Hyacinthe Raven”. Why the hell did I like this book as much as I did? The only thing I can come up with is another parallel. You know all those various aspects that you hear in a pop song and they instantly make you say “I never want to hear this again as long as I live”? I have a list of about a dozen of those. (Unfortunately, all of them are quite popular across the spectrum.) But every once in a while, you find a band who puts all of those wrong, wrong, wrong pieces together in exactly the right way, and somehow, pop magic is created. (Every one of the pieces linked above is a staple on my mp3 player amidst the noise, grindcore, and classical.) That is, exactly, Seventy Times Seven.
I’d like to pretend, in some way, that there is no prurient interest here and part of me is not saying “oh yeah, girl on girl action”, but (a) I’m a quasi-straight male, so I’d be lying through my teeth, and (b) it’s not like Miz. R isn’t pretty much daring you, reader, to not be turned on.
“…The taste//of her is spicy/incense, with a/tinge of something/that says she’s/been around/far beyond/her years./My fingertips/smooth her long/black hair from/her forehead, tracing/down her face/to paint in the/lusty sheen on//her skin…” (–”9”)
Even after things go south, and I don’t think it could possibly be a spoiler in a book-length collection centering on a single love affair to say things do go south (both literally and figuratively), Raven keeps the heat factor up, if not in the amount of sex we’re having, than in descriptions of New Orleans in the rainy season, which is about as bloody well perfect a metaphor for a decaying relationship as one can come up with (viz. the longer works of Caitlin R. Kiernan).
Thing is, even though these poems are aggressively untitled (the titles range, predictably, from “1” to “77”), they still feel like separate pieces, for the most part. Where many book-length narrative collections (and concept albums, the musical equivalent) fail are in the interstitial spaces—they either don’t bother filling them in at all or they create these long, meandering filler pieces that make you wish they hadn’t bothered filling them in at all. Raven, when she must do it (and she does), makes the correct decision, erring on the side of brevity.
“The neighbors all say /that you never get/used to the heat,/no matter how/long you stay,/and I cringe at/the possibility that/they are right.” (–”42”)
There are a few of these blips, the “meanwhile, back at the ranch…” bits, but for the most part, Raven stays focused with a precision of a poker player at a final table. This does not feel like as big a book as it is. It feels somewhat ridiculous to be making predictions when it’s only halfway through February, but it would take a lot of excellent material to knock this one off the Best Reads of the Year list for 2014. ****