Saturday, February 8, 2014

Review: Archive of the Undressed, by Jeanette Lynes

One of the better poetry books I read and reviewed last year was Jeanette Lynes’ collection It’s Hard Being Queen, a kind of poetic near-hagiography of the pop singer Dusty Springfield. In that review, I mentioned seeing Lynes’ work in various literary journals over the years and was anxious to finally read a full-length collection. It was with that sentiment that I dove into another book of hers in less than a year—this time the 2012 collection Archive of the Underdressed.

Like its predecessor, Archive picks a pop-culture preoccupation to give it its unifying focus—this time, the phenomenon of Playboy magazine. The collection offers up a mixed bag of lyric poetry, fragment, experimental verse, and personal confession to take a multifaceted glance at this salacious periodical and the empire it has spawned. In her introductory essay, Lynes describes her research at great length, and what it is about Playboy that inspires her.

But the results, at least in comparison to It’s Hard Being Queen, are a bit disappointing. The mixed bag structure actually muddles rather than elucidates Lynes’ vision for this book. I could never get a fix on anything concrete that Archive was trying to say about Playboy. If the collection is meant to be a straight-up tribute to the magazine, it falls a bit flat. If it’s meant to be a feminist critique of Playboy and its readers’ objectification of women, it doesn’t really see that vision through, either. There are some snippets of poetic memoir about Lynes’ own love life, but these are quite patchy and predictable. And you would think that the poems in this book would at least try to mirror the bawdiness of Playboy itself—especially considering the rich tradition that the bawdy has in poetry—but it’s a style of writing that Lynes doesn’t seem comfortable with or capable of.

In fact, a lot of the verse in Archive comes off as, well, listless. Take, for example, this excerpt from the piece “Hugh Hefner, Boy”:

To dumb animals please be kind
the message of his childhood poems. His mother
marvelled at his artistry, that tadpole of hers,
his drawings – flying men in capes and cowboys.
Outlaws …

Beyond the obvious cliché (“marveled at his artistry”) and the clanking syntax of this poem’s structure (shouldn’t it read “His mother/ marvelled at that tadpole of hers/ at his artistry, his drawings”?), there is a lack of heft to the Hefner portrayed here. Lynes writes with a noticeable tentativeness in this and in other pieces. It’s as if she’s afraid to say anything substantive about her subject or to transmute the magazine’s own predilections and peccadilloes into her verse. I got the sense that in most of these poems, Lynes was trying to be very careful in what she said about Playboy, rather than letting her imagination go free to have at it.

That’s not to say there aren’t some gems in this book. I really loved the flippy, skipping rhythm to, say, “How to Read Playboy”, or the cheeky opening salvo of “Thinking of You during Security Screening at Calgary Airport.” But these delights are few and far between. Too many of the poems fail to grasp their inner burlesque. Some feel overwritten without saying very much. And more than a few end on some cringe-inducing puns. Oral sect, anyone?

I still consider myself a fan of Lynes: I will always think fondly of the clarity with which she wrote her Dusty Springfield book, and the way she really pushed the hagiographic line without crossing it. But Archive of the Undressed, by comparison, comes off as a misfire. Like Playboy itself, it shows much but doesn't quite reveal enough.

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