Arsenic Lobster poetry journal
Issue Eighteen
Winter 2008
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Kathleen Rooney, Oneiromance (an epithalamion)
Switchback Books, October 2008, 59 pp
ISBN 0978617231

In ancient Greece, an epithalamion (also spelled epithalamium) was composed and sung by a young chorus to accompany a betrothed couple in a procession from the bride's present house to her future home. In the hands of poets like Sappho and Pindar, it was developed into a poetic form, and in 1595 Edmund Spencer set the gold standard with his Amoretti And Epithalamion, a tour-de-force of 89 sonnets and a 433 line epithalamion, written for his intended wife, Elizabeth Boyle.

Kathleen Rooney's Oneiromance (an epithalamion) raises the stakes by addressing two couples. As Spencer's groom was Spencer himself, the brides' personas are Rooney and her sister Beth. Whether they are to be married in a double ceremony or just within close proximity is a matter of interpretation; the point is that this gives the poet twice the material to explore. The "groom" and the "sidekick groom" — as they are referred to — receive equal billing (albeit no names) thus widening the playing field even further.

The 31 poems are categorized by place: Brazil, the Midwest and Niagara Falls. All but the Niagara Falls poems, which are labeled Scapbooks, are titled Dreams. And as dreams do, these poems range in tone from the outright psychedelic to just-left-of-center realism. Departing from the Spencerian end-rhymed form, Rooney writes in stichic verse, often in couplets, liberally layering internal rhyme to concatenate images or to progress a narrative:

 At the Zoo Lady's lair on the edge of town,
rabbits huddle in a derelect hutch. White

sequins strew the ground among round russet
droppings. A toucan scratches in a cage with

his mate. The groom sees hate in their birdy
blue eyes & white lace laced through the chicken

wire coop. Two monkeys hunker in a wooden
box, in a fiberglass tree— a birdhouse, really,

with just one room. The groom zooms in: hands
so human, eyes so luminous, until they become

as her & him, in a studio apartment in a mystery
city— expensive, shitty, coffin-sized.

~ from Brazilian Groom: Dream No. 3

While traditional epithalamions consist of blessings and wishes for happiness, Rooney deploys such idealism cheek-to-jowl with fears of commitment, complacency, and fidelity, in settings almost always as theatrical as the ceremony itself:

  The shrine church of Our Lady of Rocio is a stage.
Beth & I smile like Vegas showgirls,

like, See our teeth? & how much we just love this?
We are all at ease here. We are all having fun.

Every action gets a puff of smoke
from the machine. Extra panache.

~ from Brazilian Wedding: Dream No. 5

In lockstep with the conflict inherent in the idea of marriage — whether happily-ever-after can coexist with the drudgery and temptations of daily life — Rooney intersperses a deadpan syntax, her gaze often fastening on icons of our modern and oft-mundane landscape ("The AAA guidebook calls our Howard Johnson an architectural treasure.") with elevated, at times ethereal, language:

  Effluvia, whortleberries, & such soft light!
A lunar lambency over choppy waves

& us reeling through: slaves to the majesty
of the oldest state park.

~ from Niagara Falls, Scapbook One

Rooney's command of language and tone is often breathtaking. A heady mix of sophistication and whimsy (classical mythology, nursery rhymes, snippets of lyrics from banal wedding songs), the music always enchants. However, words never seem chosen for their music at the sacrifice of their accuracy. See, for example, how far just one letter is milked in this dream wedding beseiged by swarms of mayflies:

                        The mayflies carry his bride
astray, above woods, into twilight already

effervescent with stars. The groom knows
in his heart they won't get far. The mayflies

will die, high over the trees— make the short
R'ed drop from copse to corpse, sour in its stop,

sharp in its permanence, but the fall of his bride
will not be hard.

~ from Midwestern Groom: Dream No. 2

Someone recently asked me if I knew anyone who wrote poems when they were happy, the common wisdom being that the endeavor is (more often than not) a misery-laden one. I pulled Oneiromance out from my bag and flourished it triumphantly. For all the exhiliration and wonder at finding one's life partner are here to be found. Luckily for us, this sweetness is mixed with one part post-modernism, two parts apprehension, and a healthy pinch of loss.

Kudos also go out to Carrie Scanga and Cathy Nieciecki, respectively, for their engaging cover art and innovative book design. Switchback Books has put out a highly successful book both inside and out, one well-deserving of their 2007 Gatewood Prize.

Lissa Kiernan
Poetry Editor, Arsenic Lobster Poetry Journal
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