rev. of Jimmy & Rita by Kim Addonizio

Issue #72
Spring 1997

Jimmy & Rita
  Poems by Kim Addonizio. BOA Editions, $12.50 paper. Reviewed by Diann Blakely Shoaf.

Whitman’s famous proclamation “Through me the many long dumb voices,” depending on how it strikes the ear, echoes either with self-aggrandizement, a song that appropriates everything within shouting distance to swell its own puny notes, or with self-erasure, negative capability yawped with a barbarously American accent. The latter inflects the various voices of
Jimmy & Rita, the second full-length collection by Kim Addonizio, whose
The Philosophers’ Club won the 1994 Great Lakes’ New Writer Award. In this new volume, a verse novel, Addonizio acts as a postmodern aeolian harp, stirred to music by the stories of two eponymous lovers from our mostly unheard and invisible underclass. The most tragic aspect of the fifty-five poems lies in the fact that both Rita and Jimmy know themselves only by their failures, foremost among them the various failures of their love. Thus, it’s a triumphant, terrible paradox that Addonizio gives voices and identities to her self-negated “characters” with such lavish clarity that they quickly become “real people,” but merely to readers, never to themselves.

Rita and Jimmy, whose lives include heroin, theft, drug dealing, prostitution, and homelessness, have existed since childhood in a painful, noisy place created by the disharmonies of dream and injury. Although the couple’s milieu becomes an extreme of the American nightmare, the space in which they love and suffer, as children and adults, is large enough to contain us all. In “Portrait,” for example, we’re told that Rita, the oldest of seven kids, “used to hide / from the noise in the house / sliding down in the bathtub, / warm water in her ears,” and “if she hummed / her head filled up with music.” Her father, a door-to-door portraitist employed by Golden West Photography, mainly photographs the family he later abandons: “Rita has pictures / of herself at every age to twelve / in front of a velvet backdrop, / holding the latest baby, / smiling to please him.” Jimmy describes a fist-ready and boozy dad who, among other cruelties, feeds his son beer and laughs when he falls over furniture or vomits.
Nonetheless, like Rita, like any normal child, Jimmy hungers for his father’s approval: “Sometimes I’d sit up / at night in the garage and watch / how he drank it, tipping his head / way back, and I’d try to drink mine exactly the same, / but quietly, so he wouldn’t notice and send me away.” Rita believes she’ll be loved if she is quiet and pretty; Jimmy’s credo includes invisibility and strength, or at least being needed. After the couple is married and Jimmy loses his job, he wakes in the middle of the night and wants to hit Rita, “lying there curled / toward the window. / Just once, / hard, so she’d cry out / and he could comfort her.”

In the hands of a lesser poet, the subject matter of
Jimmy & Rita might have prompted what Jarrell called “a mooing awe for the common man.” That obsequious and typically American awe, which sounds its moo when Whitman goes off-key, swells unchecked in the work of many contemporary poets, “compassion” now a loftier buzzword than any praiseful term for imagery, music, or even intelligence. While, obviously, technical brilliance fails to move us when unwedded to larger urgencies, an eleventh commandment should forbid exploiting subjects to display one’s inherent or achieved sensitivity to suffering. The full achievement of
Jimmy & Rita is greater than I have space to discuss, but Addonizio’s cinematic use of shifting points of view and voice-overs is enormously effective; and her speedy, jazzily syncopated free verse in the third-person narratives and dramatic monologues, combined with her tersely astute prose poems, establishes her as a virtuoso of the craft just as surely as her characters prove her a fearless explorer of the most brutal, and often unsung, regions of the human heart.

Diann Blakely Shoaf’s second book, Farewell, My Lovelies,
is forthcoming from Story Line Press. New work will appear in Denver Quarterly, New England Review, The Paris Review, The Yale Review,
and elsewhere.