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Cynical & Whimsical

Book Review by Katy Haas.

I’ve had Mary Biddinger’s Partial Genius on my “to-read” shelf of my bookcase for two years now. While participating in this year’s Sealy Challenge—reading 31 books of poetry in 31 days—I finally was able to sit down and read it (and reread it).

In these prose poems, Biddinger’s voice is both cynical and whimsical. I found humor throughout in lines like “I’d have to move back to Northern Michigan in order to be beautiful,” and “Your favorite part of the Bible was that story about the flood, but it was mostly the thought of luxuriating on a ship between camels and zebras and cranes and their vast, auspicious futures.”

But then suddenly there are lines that sober like these from “Untamed Thickets”:

I did a lot of really dumb things, like jumping out of cars and allowing my feelings to seep into the pad under the carpet. [ . . . ] Certain nights were so hot I just loomed on stairways waiting for someone to push me aside, which isn’t a punishment like making out with a man who hurt you, in a closet filled with electrified metal hangers, and then missing it.

It’s impossible to guess where Biddinger will take us. In “Voir Dire,” the paragraphs jump back and forth between scenes—one a thread linking religion to a diamond ring to the idea of ownership and freedom, and the other thread carrying us through a story of a robbery and being in court. In most other poems, we read one sentence and are immediately whisked off to another thought, and this unpredictability is what I love about this collection. Every poem is fresh, exciting, and beautifully crafted.

Biddinger has another book, Department of Elegy, forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press next year. I promise it won’t have any time to collect dust on my to-read shelf.

Partial Genius by Mary Biddinger. Black Lawrence Press, August 2019.

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