Shelley Puhak, Guinevere in Baltimore, Reviewed by Christopher T. George

Puhak Book ImageShelley Puhak, Guinevere in Baltimore, Foreword by Charles Simic, Waywiser Press, 2013. ISBN: 978-1904130-57-4, 104 pp., paperback, $15.00.

Guinevere in Baltimore, chosen by Charles Simic as winner of the Anthony Hecht Prize, is a wild and wry mixing of Arthurian legend and life in modern Baltimore, Maryland, that cleverly gives us the love story of Guinevere and Lancelot against the backdrop of modern travails and mores. But the book is so much more, sucking in literary allusions along the way, as in the following piece “Lancelot Questions the Clairvoyant,” which originally appeared in Kenyon Review Online. Here the poet manages to get along the way references to Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and Joyce’s Ulysses in the final words of the piece:

Lancelot Questions the Clairvoyant

I’ve read sheep livers and intuited the yolk of
…….an unblemished egg. I’ve dusted off my
planchette and began again: Spirits, what should I do?

Dress? Strip? Head west? Only Mystifying Oracle
…….Ouija answers: Yes. No. Yes.
Did I tell you I signed the addendum? Shaved my neck.

Paid in full, three months early. Petitioned the City
…….Directors. Ginny said no more door-to-door
troubadours, no more serenades dedicated over

the airwaves. She said go fuck Elaine.
…….Madame Sosotris, what do you make of this?
I filled out the forms. I signed the addendum.

I sweated through the exam. I was told I was suited,
…….I was sought after. Madame, please stop
alchemizing antibiotics—that sinus infection, still?–

and soothsay. Tell me if dying is just rewinding back
…….to when I could carry my twelve-gauge
on the streetcar and no one blinked, back to when

mom and dad slept in separate beds, and under
…….the basement’s single bulb, Mystifying Oracle
Ouija trembled in her eggshell negligee: Yes. Yes. Yes.

It might be added that as with Eliot’s “The Waste Land” Ms. Puhak’s Guinevere in Baltimore comes with a list of footnotes at the end to elucidate the more erudite literary or historical allusions!

Ms. Puhak is a master—or should that be mistress?—of “persona poetry,” a genre that puts literary or historical figures in various other contexts and so elevates the conversation by saying something about the place or era the poet chooses to place them in.  This is the type of poetry pioneered by such poets as Australian Peter Porter but arguably earlier by Eliot himself and others.  Here’s another, shorter selection, and note here how the well-chosen line endings power the read onward:

Lancelot, Advising Galahad at the Office Depot

So you’ve fathomed an unfamiliar
flank.  All the early bees of spring
swarm in your stomach and you’re lax
and lucid with endomorphins.  Still,
be polite.  Despite the recent upswing
in your prospects, don’t forget the facts
of your situation.  Send a note.
Handwritten, in a gilded envelope.
Merry wench, distressed damsel, enchantress
with a hard luck story: each one wants words,
wants some small song to wet the flap—
the smallest song, most lonesome, the longest—
wants a sonnet in an envelope creasing towards
closure, even if no glue will ever seal the gap.

This is witty and adventurous stuff.  Perhaps too heady a mix for many but nonetheless a clever and thought-provoking read if you bear with it.  Medieval legend meets the twenty-first century.  Check it out.

© Shelley Puhak and Christopher T. George

Shelley Puhak’s Guinevere in Baltimore was selected by Charles Simic for the 2012 Anthony Hecht Prize. Her first collection, Stalin in Aruba, was awarded the Towson Prize for Literature. She is also the author of the chapbook The Consolation of Fairy Tales, winner of Split Oak Press’s Stephen Dunn Prize.  Her poetry has appeared in many journals, including Alaska Quarterly Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Carolina Quarterly, Kenyon Review Online, Missouri Review, and Ninth Letter; and in anthologies such as A Face to Meet the Faces: Contemporary Persona Poetry. Her essays have appeared in Fourth Genre and The Baltimore Sun. Ms. Puhak teaches at Notre Dame of Maryland University, where she is the Eichner Professor of Creative Writing. She lives on the outskirts of Baltimore with her husband and son.

Christopher T. George is one of the editors of Loch Raven Review.  He was born in Liverpool, England in 1948 and first emigrated to the United States with his parents in 1955. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland, near Johns Hopkins University with his wife Donna and two cats. His poetry has been published in Poet Lore, Lite, Maryland Poetry Review, Smoke, and Bogg, and online at Crescent Moon Journal, Electric Acorn, Melic Review, Painted Moon Review, Pierian Springs, the poetry (WORM), Triplopia, and Web Del Sol Review. He is the editor of the Desert Moon Review poetry workshop at http://www.thedesertmoonreview.com and has his own personal poetry site at http://chrisgeorge.netpublish.net.

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