rev. of All of the Above by Dorothy Barresi

Issue #59
Winter 1992-93

What a pleasure to find a poet whose sense of risk and honesty drives her to
complicate the emotions and attitudes of her poems so that sorrow might be suddenly hijacked by bravado, or delight by anger and humor rather than to wrap us up a neat little parcel of agreeable "sensitivities." In
All of the Above, Dorothy Barresi wants it all which by itself is enough to make hers a deeply American voice and she is unafraid of either surrendering to what she feels or of toughing it out. As the book's epigrams suggest, this is a woman who would pray with George Herbert, and play alongside of Buddy Holly.

Actually, a better pair to invoke might be Rilke and Frank O'Hara, who, if they had gone walking arm in arm through the scene at Venice Beach, might have said "Maybe Zizi is right./Rocket a mile up, look back,/and we're all just earthlings in restaurants/talking low. . .And all the crystal meth in the world/cannot lift even one of our bodies/free of this argument, or set us clear/of the boardwalk's great/stake in pleasure" ("Venice Beach: Brief Song"). Urging themselves toward hope renewed and escape made because hope is always "revising itself every million years/to climb out of the crazy swamp and live" ("Group Therapy Lounge. Columbia, South Carolina") Barresi's poems nonetheless take an equally knowing look at the romance of transcendence, and its sometimes grievous consequences. Her true subject is our national pastime: restless dreaming. That may explain why some of the best poems in this book are set in Southern California (either there or in
its proliferating outposts: miniature golf courses, discos, and used car lots), "anywhere people routinely rise/from the absence of themselves, and begin the day new" ("Nine of Clubs, Cleveland, Ohio").

Largely meditative, both colloquial and metaphysical, Barresi's poems tend to work associatively, looping through similes and metaphoric extensions. They have an urgency fueled by wit in service to a passionate intelligence, and make a habit of undercutting both themselves and the reader's expectations. A poem like "Straw Into Gold" presents a moment familiar both in our lives and in our poetry: the poet leaves her apartment and, hurrying to her new car to get to work, encounters a woman and boy rummaging through a garbage dumpster. The view is of privilege and the way in which one becomes inured, yet never inured, to the public suffering in cities; the question is a difficult one: "Is the work of this world bitter/but tidy too? Companionable in its way"? The poem illustrates how we participate in evil simply in leading our everyday lives, and just how deeply implicated the poet might be, served "a bill/reminding me of the rate of exchange/for a little peace of mind on the
freeways/. . .on the last forced march of happiness/through the last free world." This is a precarious moment, and only a poet with as ironic a touch as Barresi could handle it without false heroics or self-deception. It's a situation, the car salesman tells her, "
I think you can live with./And he was right, pretty much." That awful "pretty much" sharpens itself on more empathy and guilt and anger than whole books full of earnestly "political" poetry will ever manage, and it aims deep into the heart, where the obligation to speak of these things is acknowledged, this speaking being one of the "proper gifts" promised by Barresi at the poem's end.

All of the Above is one of the very best debuts of the last ten years. Deeply imagined, full of toughness and great heart, smarts and a funky verve, Dorothy Barresi's poems come from the places where we all live now, in America, in the 1990s. I'd pay to read or hear her anytime, I'd stand in line.
Rave on, indeed.