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Reviewed by:
  • Toast Soldiers & Other Poems, and: Balancing Acts, and: Beggars at the Wall
  • Julie R. Enszer
Rochelle Ratner; Toast Soldiers & Other Poems (Vida Loca Books, 2007)
Balancing Acts(Marsh Hawk Press, 2006)
Beggars at the Wall (IKON, 2005)

Rochelle Ratner died on March 31, 2008 at the age of fifty-nine. She was a poet, novelist, critic and editor. During her lifetime, she published two novels, sixteen books of poetry, an anthology titled Bearing life: Women’s Writing on Childlessness, published in 2000 by The Feminist Press, among her many other literary projects. Three of Ratner’s recent books of poetry, Toast Soldiers, issued as an ebook by Vida Loca Books, Balancing Acts, and Beggars at the Wall, reflect her prodigious publication history as a writer and the issues and themes that she grappled with throughout her life.

Balancing Acts is a collection of seventy-two prose poems that, according to Ratner, “chronicle the growth of one woman or a mythic Everywoman, from early childhood through adulthood.” Ratner brings a strong narrative perspective to this collection of prose poems. While many prose poems rely on narrative within the poem itself, the narrative arc of Balancing Acts is created not only within the poems but also through the interlinking of the prose poems. Sometimes the move between “one woman and a mythic Everywoman” is a glissade, and the book holds a truthful center of a single woman; but sometimes that move is jerky, and the reach to Everywoman seems to compromise the narrative.

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The poems that stand out as exemplary in this collection are longer sequenced poems, particularly “The Exterminator’s Daughter,” “Food Fights I,” and “Food Fights II.” For instance, in “The Exterminator’s Daughter,” Ratner writes in the second section titled “The Mosquito Cop,”

The mosquito cop slaps her arm, and back and cheek. Stop it, Daddy. But she’s been a bad girl, eating sweets again. Mosquitoes love the chocolate around her lips, the sticky peppermint on her fingers.

The poem concludes,

Daddy slaps the back of her calf. He slaps the chest that will need a bra soon. Daddy [End Page 143] loves her. But it hurts when Daddy loves her. She’d rather have the sting of the mosquitoes. She’d rather have the itch, and the bright red scabs she can pick at with her bitten fingernails.

The sequence continues with the various infestations through the narrator’s lifetime: bees, wasps, worms, mice. In the penultimate section, “Glowing Insects in Hopes of Cutting Malaria,” Ratner returns to the father and the mosquitoes that “bit the hell out of her, regardless what repellent she uses or how many citronella candles she leaves burning.” She doubts the effectiveness of “making males infertile and killing off a whole population.” She knows what her father would say, “use the strongest chemicals you can get and kill them all. But her father, these nights, says little, stays inside the house, weak and dizzy.” Ratner is able to accomplish this deft blending of imagery and characterization in these prose poems by sustaining the poem in multiple parts. In them, Ratner demonstrates the strength of her narrative vision and trajectory in the book, making Balancing Acts compelling from start to finish.

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Balancing Acts raises interesting questions about genre and the lines between fiction and creative non-fiction. The woman at the narrative center of the book is referred to in the third person; this provides a particular distance between the poet and the character and undermines the sense of reading autobiography or memoir. At the same time, the tone and emotional intensity of some of the poems open the text to reading it as memoir or even confessional poetry. In many ways, Balancing Acts could be read as a fictional novel or as creative non-fiction instead of as prose poetry. Reading Balancing Acts as creative non-fiction or fiction would alter a reader’s experience of the book. The different frames and expectations of various genres would each enhance and detract from the text. It is in this liminal space that Ratner is reveling. Playing with...


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pp. 143-146
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2012
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