Carine Topal's Bed of Want
In a good example of the discerning eyes of those with the “power to publish”, California Institute of Arts and Letters (“CalArts”) not only awarded Carine Topal its 2007 Robert G. Cohn Prose Prize for her poem, The Favourite Poet, 1888 but, recognizing a good poet when they read one, invited her to submit other poems for possible publication. The happy result was CalArts’ decision to release Topal’s chapbook Bed of Want.
The reference to the Cohn Prize on the book’s cover is a little misleading as it might cause the unsuspecting reader to believe the manuscript is comprised entirely of prose poems. To the contrary, the chapbook reveals the broad range of Topal’s talents. Of particular interest are the epistolary poems that are sprinkled throughout the book. Topal titillates by creating a veil of mystery around these poems. For example, Postcard #4 precedes Postcard #3 (both wrapped in atmospheric references to London and Lisbon) although Postcard #3 bears the later date. Further, who is this enigmatic “Lucille” referenced in most of these poems of correspondence but strangely absent from Postcard Tunis? (I almost missed her!!)
But it isn’t just the epistolary poems that create a sense of mystery. From the opening poem in the book, appropriately titled How It Begins, Topal clearly signals that the reader shouldn’t make assumptions about the poems that will follow. How It Begins moves from its title to state in its first line: “[w]ith joy. With the giving of teeth for our young” then closes with “[a]nd we, being mothers, watch still for wolves”. Hmmm, the kind of mother many of us might have wished for?
Topal goes on to demonstrate that she has a deft touch when it comes to matters sensual. In Eating Apples she asserts “…when she got to the cluster of black seeds/thatched deep in the shaft,/she could bring them out like a tease…” She goes on to use her skill to continually bring her bookworm back to her underlying thesis about desire, that “bed of want”. In Twin, for example, she suggests that “…[w]e are pillars in our town, cardinal and ordinal directives….if you set us in water, from a distance, we’ll appear like a houseboat or marine charm”. Just as quickly she warns In the End Death Is An Endless Kitchen, that “[t]hough light comes in/in the manner of florescence,/there’s little that is safe…”
In the end, it’s Topal’s compassion—as in My Mother Who Art in Heaven where she grieves “…and you naturalized citizen/petrified in the summer/of dahlias and bush berries/look down at the era of without you…”—and her mastery of the curiosities of language—as in my favorite poem, Pleasure Hotel, where she situates us: “In the burning hotel pleasure rose like smoke, though moonless we pleasured, we rose, we burning…” and seduces us. It is this seduction that makes Bed of Want a book to curl up with and be pleasured by.
Bed of Want, copyright 2008 Corine Topal, California Institute of Arts and Letters, ISBN 978-0971408593, $9.95, 30 pages