Autoplay by Julie Babcock
MG Press, 2014; 66 pp
Reviewed by Sebastian H. Paramo
In Julie Babcock's debut collection of poems, Autoplay, Babcock beautifully renders an ode to Ohio, the Midwest, and the stuff of childhood mythologies. A native Ohioan and girl of the Midwest, Ohio acts as a backdrop in these tiny worlds inhabited by each poem.
Babcock playfully dances between her personal Ohio and the real Ohio. In poems like, “Shuffle, Hop, Step,” the speaker remembers herself as a little girl “sticky from quarter machine candy” practicing her dance into adulthood where she encounters beer, Cincinnati, Michigan, Debbie Reynolds and Gene Kelly singing “good morning.”
Babcock appears to be fascinated with storybook characters. She twists the magic of childhood fairy tales and infuses them with adulthood. In poems like “Jonah's Trick” where the speaker pictures going inside the belly of Jonah's whale or a girl axing her way through a wolf, a desire is expressed to capture the magic of the childhood moment. This desire when juxtaposed next to the poem, “First Sex,” it's captured in the form of a teen-aged girl shoplifting Billy Idol and hearing his voice for the first time and it feels like escape because the idea of, “No one / knew where I was. No one / in my lifelong, small town” brings about such possibility and magic. In other poems, Sleeping Beauty, Sugar Plum fairies, and Pinocchio make appearances adding to this idea of capturing the small wonder between the story and reality.
Even in the small moments of something like free flag day in “American Flyers” Babcock has the ability to capture this magic in the experience of children playing with small American flags:
Stars and stripes
fly and roll
into tiny telescopes,
wave and fold
Babcock exploration of these magical moments that establish her Ohio's secret mythology when we see bedroom boys and girls play inside caves and the bones of a large hand turn out to be a whale fin disguised as the meditation for what whales are really talking about.
In this world of magic and secrets anything is possible. In “The Fortuneteller,” the unspoken possibility is stated in the closing lines, “Anything you want, she says, / and opens my hand again.” Even the most innocent of characters are not immune. In “Dick and Jane Burn Down The House,” there's a new coolness attached to what appears to be an older Dick and Jane. I can't help recalling the title of the Talking Head's song, “Burning Down The House,” when Dick talks about his desire for learning to dance in Vegas and hijacking a spaceship. It's a fitting transitional poem for what comes next when she takes Ohio from the ground and to the air of higher aspirations.
Perhaps this is why the closing poems of this collection dwell on the “Astronaut Ohio,”a beautiful ode to the pioneers of flight and their home state, explores Ohio as something capable of “pyramid[ing] through the atmosphere/ [and] jacknife through galaxies / write carefully folded notes from the stars.” The poem closes by imagining Ohio, as a her own sort of heroine:
She is worship
with a new altar song
white and everlasting.
Pearls in her ears
combs in her hair
diamonds flashing from her fingers. Look!
she comes down the aisle pretending
she’s been nowhere.
Babcock's collection as a whole soars with possibility, myths, and wonders. One can imagine each poem as a miniature figurine of childhood or a toy in a giant sandbox that plays together well as a whole universe. Each one plays a part in creating this beautiful ode to Ohio and the small wonders of our lives.