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  • Not About A Boy
  • Hilary Sideris (bio)
Dangerous to Know
Patricia Brody
Salmon Poetry
70 Pages; Print, $12.00

In Caro: The Fatal Passion (1972), Henry Blyth’s biography of Lady Caroline Lamb, Blyth writes of Lady Lamb’s lifelong disappointment over not having been born a boy: “She always wanted to be a boy, she habitually behaved like a boy, she often dressed like a boy, and she bore a secret grudge against her mother because she was not a boy.” As a schoolgirl, Caroline Lamb threw tantrums and told fibs. She quoted Shakespeare and was considered by her teachers to have a brain “too fertile and too agile.”

Caroline Lamb’s “boyish” behavior continued into womanhood, scandalizing many in her social set. She garnered scant praise for her bestselling novel, Glenarvon (1816). In fact, her “defiance of convention” and “scornful comments on morality” were on a par with Lord Byron’s, whose lover she became, and whom she famously described in her diary as “mad, bad and dangerous to know”—though perhaps, as Patricia Brody suggests, Lady Lamb was describing herself.

In Brody’s debut collection of poems, Dangerous to Know, Caroline Lamb represents the repressed and despised female artist through the ages, talented and ambitious, but labeled insane for her outspoken behavior or relegated to the role of muse/groupie. In these poems, Caroline Lamb, along with Dorothy Wordsworth, Artemisia Gentileschi, and Letitia Elizabeth Landon (among others) emerge from their relative obscurity to startle us with their wit and art. In the loose sonnet, “William’s Shy Romantic,” William Wordsworth’s sister Dorothy:

Recorded pine, cloud-cave, brother’s footfall, felt fog stir, heard lightning release, denied, her own bruised feet, wrenched spine, rent, heart

It seems that Dorothy, when not cooling William’s “hot head” and nursing his children “with mother-herbs, chamomile,” also kept a “packed journal / tossed out in her green world to curl yellow,” in which she recorded lyrical passages that William freely borrowed:

If he were mouthpiece, even brain, she was lute, reflex let-down, milk-blue rain.

Dorothy, albeit a force of nature, is softness personified, as she yields her milk and chamomile. Note the feminine rhymes: “pillow” / “yellow,” “footfall” / “journal,” yet the sonnet ends in a full masculine rhyme, and it’s no coincidence that the word “brain” (William’s, that is) contains (Dorothy’s) “milk-blue rain.”

Although Patricia Brody’s poems surge with female emotion and biology, they are driven by a muscular fierceness, a female will to prevail. In “Through a Keyhole Darkly,” the poet’s strapping mother:

wouldn’t wear frills. She was a kind of boy-mom. Strong arms for baseball, not for oatmeal

Her skin, bronze

her lipstick Hot Coral, and she smoked.

This sinewy mother figure stands in stark contrast to the speaker (Anne Donne) of “Undonne,” who was seventeen years old when she married John. He was promptly arrested and imprisoned, “leaving me the ruined bed / the cramps / the moist ache there.” It’s this tension between womanhood’s two sides—the soft, aching and passive, versus the tough, willful and active—that keeps Brody’s poems complex and ultimately unresolved.

Brody studied with Marilyn Hacker, whose poetry Alicia Ostriker describes as embodying “a tension between a highly artful formalism and the instincts of a rule-breaker.” The same can be said of Brody, though her poems are freer in their use of form and more fractured and staccato than Hacker’s conversational performances in rhyme and meter.

In “Althea’s Game,” spoken by the first African American women’s tennis star, Althea Gibson proclaims:

Mother named me goddess, long-limbed. My hair the night let down I didn’t laugh or wink. My long swing broke the barrier for Venus & Serena

The memory of this feat is followed immediately by the reflection: “The Times suggested my life / lacked something,” causing the reader to wonder, if not for long, what the Times might have thought Althea lacked: “Leaving—as the Times must / the life / spilled.” Champion that she is, Althea pays such insinuations little mind:

…I slammed that ball

straight to the mulberry sun.

Look with awe. River of...