Language—not just barriers, but its inadequacy—hisses its way thematically through Rachel DeWoskin’s poetry collection “Two Menus.” And yet, DeWoskin’s dancing, diving words create a deeply felt experience. Her imagery and juxtaposition, her pacing and tonal shifts, her surprising investigation into worlds within and without, elevate her subject matter to a three-dimensional entity. Only a master craftswoman could use language to sell the notion that language stands as poor substitute for human complexity.
DeWoskin is a storyteller. The forty-five poems, sometimes opaque, sometimes lucid, each play a part in a larger narrative arc. These poems collectively tell the story of a woman searching for herself, reinventing herself, of a woman affected by and afflicted with so many past selves.
“Two Menus” opens with a poem called “The Blind Massage Parlor” in which people from different cultures search for commonality, especially in language; the collection ends with “Too,” a challenge to women to express their power. In between, the poems crisscross South China and the United States, between childhood and motherhood, safety and danger. Throughout the collection, these distinct and often contradictory elements sidle their way closer to each other, in a sense making a decision to accept that they all share common DNA.
Two facing poems—”Chinese Highway” and “American Highway”—consciously spotlight the book’s metaphorical journey. In the first, a tangle of crashed vehicles, including a truck carrying bees, turns a young couple’s road trip into a surreal experience that vacillates between sweet and scary. In the second, the narrator, literally and figuratively viewing her world upside down, uses the landscape to flash backward and forward over a life that with indescribable rapidity covers a great expanse. The position of the poems helps instill this sense of a compressed space between these future-is-wide-open and the best-is-all-behind moments. Two contrasting images—of a car blindly inching forward through a smoky, bee-infested horizon and Lolita at sixty years old—frame these existential reflections.
But the overall effect of the poems is not dread so much as greed, or a desire for more, more, more of life at its most spectacular, scintillating best. That best, be it a childhood, adolescent or adult moment, reveals itself, through DeWoskin’s poems, as something perpetual rather than static.
The title poem—in which a Beijing restaurant’s first menu offers excess and the other scarcity—showcases the collection’s attraction to extremes. This often comes in the form of risk taking, as represented especially in the poem “Extreme Sports,” but also in “Night Swimming” and “Straight Up.” These adventures, partially because of their inherent risks, jolt the narrator into an appreciation of her life and make her take inventory of her past, present and future, as though they all depend on each other for survival. Much of this abstraction comes through the finely-sculpted metaphors of the poems, for example, “Straight Up,” in which the rock climber narrator muses:
“So fine, fall. Get up, love a rope, a net,
Intent. Grab at whatever set
of truths a fighting crown of selves may make, all
our holds along such a sleek, sheer wall.”
Over the course of this collection, the narrator swishes through a life lived and to come, teasing the edges of experience through poems about love, sex, childhood, adolescence, identity, betrayal and death, generations looping back on one another, relationships getting entangled, all the while stitching whole these disparate experiences and emotions. Clashes of culture and identity are all parts of a self-reflection that spark a determination to understand and use a life all too fleeting. The collection’s final lines read not only as a challenge but a declaration of language’s power.
“Mean it. Don’t pack words
In your furious marrow, shout out
what we made: language, all the babies, hell, ourselves.”
DeWoskin certainly does not pack her words, though I’d stop short of calling what she does a shout. Rather, she uses language, admittedly a substitute for experience, to advocate for the idea that communication, in all its forms, works to get inside yourself and those around you. DeWoskin’s sophisticated, clever poetry, vacillating between soft and sonic, manages to break into the parts of the human story that so often seem inaccessible, or at least indescribable.
By Rachel DeWoskin
The University of Chicago Press, 88 pages
Donald G. Evans is the author of three books, most recently the story collection An Off-White Christmas, and Founding Executive Director of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame.