A Sunny Place with Adequate Water by Mary Biddinger
Black Lawrence Press, 2014; 79 pp
Reviewed by Vladislav Frederick
Mary Biddinger’s A Sunny Place with Adequate Water is (as her title would suggest) a collection that is habitable, but must definitely be acknowledged as a place to be survived, as well: a “place with adequate water” and sunlight, but with no mention of the many other resources and conditions that humans need. The title also suggests a stark universal standard for habitation, the idea that a place is liveable simply so long as there is water and sun. However, the modification of sun into “sunny” puts an inherently positive tone upon the collection, one that is indeed present: creeping out constantly amidst more troubling and trying interactions between the child and the adult world around them, between past and present, between surviving and dying.
Biddinger delights in the inversion or subversion of expectations through applying a shade of dystopia, a slight surrealist flavor to her delvings into childhood. Note the following excerpt from the poem “Burying The Apron”:
weeds, not people, but that’s not to say
we were stunted. Every year my birthday gift
was a trip to the Christmas theme park
that contained a strange number of fires
and other threats to Santa, or the dark house
where they’d put a towel over your
mother’s face and pretend to slit
her corduroys with an oversized tree saw.
Biddinger revives a facet of childhood with a surreal twist that reveals a little girl’s happiest day of the year, her birthday, as a more unsettling journey into a theme park where violence is being done to the child narrator, to her beliefs about Santa, and to her mother. And yet, there is a sense of all this being ritual, somehow alright despite the unsettling diction with words like “strange,” “fires and other threats,” “the dark house,” etc. The start of the excerpt, “weeds, not people, but that’s not to say / we were stunted” is a superb blending of human and plant in terms of growth, a crafty replacement of the statement that “children grow like weeds.” Much of the language in the poem operates on such a level: mythologizing, ritualizing, and normalizing the strange and the terrible that has been portrayed. This leads frequently to powerful, moving works of juxtaposition.
There is an underlying struggle between the narrator and death, and “the executioner” who shows up in several poems throughout the collection. The term takes on a greater quality than simply killer of life; at times the word seems to represent justice, or justice absent, or other ideas of morality . “The executioner” is personified often, and holds a very contextual identity, seeming sometimes to represent a partner or relation of the narrator, or perhaps a moment or event that has come or is yet to come. The layering in of this character, and of other language thematic of death throughout the collection, makes the collection’s movement through childhood and adult memories feel more mature, more cognizant of the many hard, often tucked away and hidden aspects of a child’s long maturation into an adult, and of the unresolved pieces of the child that linger with the adult.
And, woven within the work, a note of humor: a wry--though often sunny--wit that carries through the moments of both light and dark. In conclusion to this review, consider the following excerpt from Biddinger’s poem, “They Appeal To My Sense Of Logic, And Lose”
If logical appeals were guillotines, then all of the heads in town
would be free. I kept seeing my fate in the mangled pendulums of
the daylilies. It looked like someone had loved them too fiercely.
I swear it wasn’t me.