A Sunny Place with Adequate Water by Mary Biddinger
Black Lawrence Press, 2014; 79 pp
Reviewed by Daniel Heffner
Mary Biddinger’s collection, A Sunny Place with Adequate Water, reads like stream of consciousness with a fever: her couplets and tercets spring from image to image with a restless longing. “I” and “you” and “we” run through her poems; the speaker and others wandering through a landscape of abandoned fruit stalls, miniature models, and a remarkable number of coin-operated apparatus.
Her poems are intimate and her images are intricately wound around a core of surprising desire and violence: “If I were a death / I would involve lanterns and wet fields.” These are poems that require a good deal of time and effort and are occasionally opaque. But even the opaque moments have a texture that rewards close reading.
Biddinger’s speaker often declares information about the “I” and “we” and “you”: “Your tattoos were all coin-operated. / The hair under your arms was coin-operated. I operated / on myself until I was right enough to suit you.” The speaker’s relationships to the unnamed others are important, even though the reader is never quite sure whether the “you” of one poem is the same as the “you” in another. The result is a sense that the other people in these poems bleed into each other—are concurrently distinct and the same. When a “they” enters the poem, it feels like a real intrusion: “They could all go to their walnut-crusted hell.”
The speaker struggles to manage and make sense of a variety of relationships. In “A Coin-Operated City of the Past,” the speaker first says “We did not know each other,” then asks “You made / me, didn’t you?” The contradiction is a powerful one, an example of what Biddinger does so well in this book. The book presents a speaker moving through a community, testing connections and values and people, sensing underlying violence, and speaking it all in a beautifully complex, surreal, and vigorous voice.