rev. of 1-800-HOT-RIBS by Catherine Bowman

Issue #63
Spring 1994

Poems by Catherine Bowman. Gibbs Smith, $9.95 paper. Reviewed by Diann Blakely Shoaf.

“I want words meat-hooked from the living steer,” Lowell wrote, as if foreseeing 1-800-hot-ribs, the debut collection by Catherine Bowman, a skilled young poet who seems to manipulate the language with a branding iron in one hand and a bullwhip in the other. Bowman’s native soil is Texas, and though she casts a cold eye on its codes of Bubba Machismo and Cheerleader Femininity, she knows that denying one’s roots is equivalent to using a butcher’s cleaver to perform an act of self-amputation. She also knows how thin the line between Bubba and the Cheerleader really is.

In “Dove at Sundown,” for example, she writes of herself and another female hunter: “We clean our kill by headlight. First you twist / the head off like a bottle cap. The thumb / and pointer finger are used as hooks / to disengage guts and any shot.” Once the birds are eaten, the women “strip down and soak / in a cleaned-out cow tank swimming pool,” watching bombers from a nearby Air Force base “out for test flights: slow and prehistoric, / petroglyphs of winged jaguars come to life.”

“Dove at Sundown” is written in rough blank verse, and Bowman is particularly adept in the use of traditional forms. Her kinetic vernacular and jazzy rhythms, which can seem fey and unshaped in the few poems where they lack a counterbalancing tension, are perhaps most successful in sonnets like “Jackie in California” and “LBJ Ranch Barbeque” or in the several sestinas here, “Spice Night” being another of the delights Bowman’s book offers.

This last poem is set in San Antonio, home of the Alamo, whose suicidal defense is accorded a special place in Texas lore. Bowman has cheerfully pillaged that lore, and our national stock of myths and archetypes as well, for 1-800-hot-ribs, a book whose tongue-in-cheek bravado and linguistic swagger will conquer, I predict, the hearts of many readers.

Diann Blakely Shoaf is a regular reviewer for the “Bookshelf.” Her collection of poems, Hurricane Walk,
was published by BOA Editions in 1992.