Compulsions of Silkworms and Bees
By Julianna Baggott
Pleiades Press, 2007
Reviewed by Kristina Marie Darling
In her new collection Compulsions of Silkworms and Bees, Julianna Baggott chooses both the craft and the business of poetry as her subjects, pairing simultaneous submissions with workshops, apologias, and the poets that came before her. Part primer and part credo, Baggott's book provides a fabulous introduction to poetry writing with imagination that would dazzle even the most seasoned author. Offering both instruction and images that render the familiar world of poetry suddenly strange, this book constantly surprises with its evocative metaphors for the act of generating work. Casting poems as lovers and love poems as termites, Compulsions of Silkworms and Bees proves an engaging and consistently inventive ars poetica that invites the reader to re-imagine the inner workings of their own poems all the while.
Exploring such topics as poetry workshops, writing exercises, and "The Current Events Poem," Baggott provides insightful commentary on the craft of writing through her delightful, surprising use of conceits. Using extended comparisons to comment on current trends in teaching writing and the generation of new poems, Compulsions of Silkworms and Bees impresses with its unlikely associations while maintaining a balanced perspective on what it means to be a writer. "The Workshop Poem" exemplifies this trend in Baggott's book, comparing poetry written outside of the classroom setting to flowers that breed naturally. For example, she writes in her new collection: "[…] at the moment you expect dilation,/ watch the barren stem, a weed, in fact,/ suddenly littered with buds, burst/ a profusion of orange wings-/ what to do? – a fire in the flower bed" (28). Suggesting that "the crosshatching zigzag" of flowers, like the poem composed on its own terms, sometimes provides unexpected and desirable results, Baggott's piece cautions writers against becoming unwilling to experiment, the conceit itself ending in a "profusion of orange wings." Like many other works in this book, this piece uses the comparison to enact its subject, presenting an unaffected view on writing throughout.
In addition to providing incisive commentary on poetry and publishing, Baggott's imaginative use of personification to depict the act of writing is impressive. Often giving poems themselves bodies and voices, the author uses this device to portray the qualities that make poetry distinctive, troublesome, and necessary. Baggott's presentation of the genres of literature in "Poetry Addresses Her Sister, the Novel" is a good example of this tendency, using imagery of twin girls to convey the qualities that separate poetry from fiction. For example, she writes of novels in Compulsions of Silkworms and Bees: "But then you developed a swagger, busty with hips…You need to learn to whittle soap/ to a narrow bone, to live in steam/ so the wool shrinks to a toughened swatch,/ not a sweater, not a mitten, something otherworldly./ Why do you want so much?" (5). Describing poetry as the more quiet and contemplative of the two sisters, this work performs its description of the art form, the piece itself having lived "in steam/ so the wool shrinks to… something otherworldly" (5). Suggesting that poetry remains unique in its ability to distill experience, "Poetry Addresses Her Sister, the Novel," like other works in the collection, becomes a delightful match-up of form and content, consistently depicting the act of creation with humor and heart.
Compulsions of Silkworms and Bees is a finely crafted, highly literate read. A treat for new poets and seasoned readers alike, Julianna Baggott's new collection is a must-read.
KRISTINA MARIE DARLING is an undergraduate at Washington University in St. Louis. She is the author of four chapbooks, which include Fevers and Clocks (March Street Press, 2006) and The Traffic in Women (Dancing Girl Press, 2006). Her poems, reviews, and essays have appeared in many journals, which include Janus Head, The Mid-America Poetry Review, The Midwest Book Review, PIF Magazine, The Arabesques Review, and others. A Pushcart Prize nominee in 2006, Kristina's recent awards include residencies at the Writers Colony at Dairy Hollow and the Mary Anderson Center for the Arts.