Lorna Dee Cervantes's book of love poems is a novel exploration of one of poetry's oldest subjects. The collection is a deftly-crafted experiment in form that manages to read like free verse. It is divided into five unnamed sections of twenty numbered poems apiece. The poems are self-contained enough that one may dip into the collection at random, savoring individual poems, but the book also works as a single longer text divided into one hundred shorter episodes. The sections loosely follow the trajectory of a relationship, as the first section is a cautious getting-to-know you, the second is the flirtatious early days, the third is the deep passion of hungry lovers, the fourth is a breakup and ambivalent aftermath of longing for the lost other, and the fifth is a reconciliation accompanied by a return of physical desire. As the collection moves along and the relationship warms up, the poems feel more natural and the visibility of their form falls away.
In the first section, each poem has one or two images that stick in the mind, but the poems otherwise feel ephemeral. There are exquisite metaphors such as "the way you unroll me / like a packet of nickels" from "100 Words to Your Secrets" (13), but one cannot see the lovers—whatever physical descriptions we get are of the outside world, not of their bodies—thus most of the early poems feel like they are only theoretically about love. There is no physicality to them.
But the second section is more welcoming. It is playful, with pleasant rhymes ("appealing / to you to take off / that frown, strip down to / your smile and ground" ) and a litany of pop culture references including Aretha Franklin (32), Winnie the Pooh (34), and Don McLean's "American Pie" (43) that help the speaker make sense of her burgeoning attraction to her lover. This playfulness is also present in a number of poems throughout the book that employ digital-age metaphors. Cervantes transforms the cold language of technology into a code of desire via love's touch. The speaker "want[s] to be pixilated / twitterpated by you" (30), she asks "Baby, let me blog you" (38), she is "waiting for your google, / Baby, waiting for your probe" (107). While Ciento's theme is traditional, its images are not, and this is one of the collection's strengths.
As the book moves on, it heats up. The latter part of section two and section [End Page 75] three's poems are often about sexual desire. The most physically frank poems, such as the self-explanatory "100 Words for My Ass" (44), or "100 Words to Nail You," in which the speaker pleads "Come / and nail me. Kiss me. / Keep me on your cross" (56) are some of Ciento's best. They do not make the mistake of equating love with lust, but illustrate how sublime experiencing another's body can be. The speaker wants sex because it symbolizes how a relationship molds each partner into something new since they are willing to make themselves vulnerable.
Section four shows the downside of this vulnerability, as the speaker's partner's infidelity flays her. In "100 Words Against the Gamma Ray You," which reads like Sylvia Plath's "Daddy" and includes the same level of rage, the speaker's treacherous lover is described violently as "Laser beam you / gamma knife / you... irradiating you" (72), a monstrous presence. By this point in the collection, one is fully invested in the speaker's life, and thoughts about the poems' form dissipate. This is to Cervantes's credit; she exhibits her technical mastery by adhering to her 100-word structure, but shows an even stronger mastery of the rhythm of language, poetry's most important element.
The final section describes the lovers' reconciliation, as the speaker desires both the emotional intimacy of "your seldom told stories, your / contentious lines" in "100 Words to Content" (96) and her lover's body in "100 Words to Your Organ" (97), an ode to his penis. While...