- Word Play
Big Wonderful Press
52Pages; Print, $16.99
I remember discovering Hilary Sideris many moons ago in the pages of Salamander, a college-based journal out of Boston. Sideris’s poems stood out for their attention to form and their wry wit. From Warsaw, Indiana, she’s the best rhymer to leave that state, I thought, since Cole Porter left Peru to attend Worcester Academy in 1905. I kept my eye out for her, but rarely saw the many notable zines in which Sideris publishes.
We did, however, meet at a poetry reading in the depths of the Cornelia Street Café in the fall of 2015, and exchanged books. Recently we had another encounter at Cornelia Street, and I now own her latest book, The Inclination to Make Waves, handsomely produced in a 9x6 format between stiff paper covers with a wraparound greeny illustration bearing patterns of waves. The poems, fortunately, have strong survival instincts and know how to swim, albeit against the current. And Sideris has endowed them with one four-letter-word titles and bodies made of five or six (once seven) couplets of only one to six syllables. Within these boundaries she creates a lot of variety in subject, narrative, and diction. Consider “FLAT,” which tells of a failed relationship:
It got too smooth, too even, but we lacked
the inclination to make waves….
I lived with you. It went like that.
This excerpt includes less than half the six-couplet poem, but the flat tone renders perfectly the flat “one story” deflation of the partnership: the couple, which might once have had some effervescence, now “stayed the same,” has gone flat: “It went like that,” a last line that refers to either the manner or the speed of the decline; the last word, “that,” rhymes with the title, “FLAT.” And lines 3-4 give the book its title.
This is inviting work. It recalls Kay Ryan or May Swenson but stands apart in its originality. Like those two gifted predecessors, Sideris keeps her eyes and ears open to the congruencies of language, as in “GIFT,” which plays on the title word’s German twin, meaning poison in English. “Poison in German,” the poem begins and then reflects on the gift the speaker’s partner felt disappointed by, followed by the second half about a gift the speaker desired but her partner failed to buy. Thus, in an implied bilingual pun, gifts poisoned the relationship. It’s an old story, found in Martial and in O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” but here made contemporary and, through Sideris’ deadpan delivery, denied melodramatic consequence.
These one-word titles are adjectives (“GOOD”), nouns (“LEEK”), pronouns (“WHAT”), or verbs (“JILT”) and often both nouns and verbs (“BOND,” “LURE,” “DUST,” and of course “GIFT”) and can show Sideris’s alertness to the potential volatility of her language. “MIND,” for example, begins, “I like the word best / as a verb, as in / do you…,” which allows the speaker to say she does mind that her partner relates a dream of the speaker “with Alzheimer’s.” The poem might be said to illustrate the assertion of mind over matter.
In addition, “MIND” illustrates Sideris’s preference for monosyllables. The poem begins with fourteen consecutive one-syllable words, and contains only four words of more than one syllable. One of these is “Alzheimer’s,” which gains significance as a polysyllabic word among the monosyllables, like Gulliver in Lilliput. “SOCK,” the next poem in the collection, includes a string of twenty-eight monosyllables. Her skill employing small words puts Sideris in the elite company of Emily Dickinson, Stephen Crane, and Robert Frost, among other American poets.
In “TEAR,” a word with two pronunciations and meanings, the poet says she never knows “how to pronounce” it and affectionately calls it a “small but volatile / word.” “WORK” begins with definitions followed by a catalog of applications, then concludes with a question, “What / have you wrought?” (which rhymes with “fraught” earlier), an old-fashioned past participle for “work” itself. And in “BEND” Sideris laconically...