Cambridge Book Review

[Issue #10, Fall 2003]

Pencil Test
By Karla Huston
Cassandra Press, 2002

Reviewed by Bob Wake

Karla Huston is rapidly acquiring a well-deserved reputation as one of Wisconsin's most arresting contemporary poets. Whether writing of moon-besotted crickets ("the bows / of their legs filled with jazz"), or her mother's alter ego ("I thought I saw my mother / on television, her hair / in a swingy pageboy, mouth / chiseled with dark lipstick"), or an ancient god itchy for a blow job ("Zeus / wants a woman with Olympic kneeling / power, the ability to swallow / in a flood"), Huston's images are wondrously sly and sensual.

Her 2002 chapbook Pencil Test achieves at times an almost taunting eroticism. "Voyeur" opens with a stern admonition instilled since the narrator's childhood "never to open the door to men / when I was alone at night." As a young girl, she's spooked by rumors of a locally murdered babysitter. We experience her fear when she tells us that years later, as an adult with a child of her own, she once noticed "three boys looking / through slanted shutters, / watching me nurse my daughter."

In the concluding stanza, however, Huston pulls the rug out from beneath our cozy armchair empathy. Suddenly exposed -- with a stunning Freudianism -- are the narrator's alienation and suppressed sexual desire, thus making disquieting voyeurs of us all:
Today I live in a place where
no one warns me about danger
or dark arrivals in the night.
I stand at my window,
offer bare breasts, press them
like lilies into the cold glass.
They flatten into new moons.
I wonder who watches,
who might enter the space between.

There's a double-edged yearning to the poem's final lines, "I wonder who watches, / who might enter the space between." The flirtatious entreaty to "enter the space between" invokes a linguistic longing for readers to read between the lines, to engage fully with a poem's power to unmask and reveal. Not for Huston the cloistered poetics of tranquility. Her often unnerving sensibility serves to shake us up, to leave us dizzy and unsure of our bearings.

It is this quality of injecting feverish emotions into an otherwise ordered existence that provides the turbulent wellspring of Huston's best work. Her urgency derives both from a radical assault on our complacency and a dire recognition that we're every moment of every day just a breath away from a rude awakening.

The poem "This is How I Remember It" begins deceptively with the nostalgia of "watching my mother can green beans" in the basement. Loving memories are conjured of "sugared tomatoes puddled in white bowls" and "the wallpaper / a collage of tea pots and forget-me-nots." But wait. By the fifth stanza, the Proustian stream of consciousness has turned toxic:
I can still see the washboard sink, that pin-up
lamp spreading yellow, taste the night
I drank ant poison, bottle caps of it waiting,

tucked in a corner near the sugar bowl.
I thought it was leftover Pepsi,
thimbles of the amber syrup, I could never have.

A late-night emergency trip to a decidedly grim doctor brings physical but not emotional relief: "This will teach her a lesson, he said. / My mother nodded, so sure this was true."

There is a strong sense of narrative and character in Huston's work. Poems like "Moonlight Skate," "The Vanishing Woman," and "At the Curl Up and Dye" are as vivid in their depiction of rural American lives as the fiction of Eudora Welty. Much like the dotty beauty-parlor eccentrics in Welty's "Petrified Man," Huston's women in "At the Curl Up and Dye" evoke a microcosmic world unto themselves:
They come looking for miracles.
They want curls or not, the latest
disguise, someone to shave 15 years off
faces, hands, their sorry soap operas.
They get clipped and twisted, then watch
the remains brushed into piles by salon ladies
wearing gloves and cloaks of lavender mint.

Also like Welty, Huston can sometimes be overly harsh on her creations, substituting a kind of dark sarcasm for psychological insight. "The Vanishing Woman," for example, offers little sympathy for its overweight and unhappy title character who, even in her dreams, is "too plump to orgasm." Like one or two other poems in Pencil Test, "The Vanishing Woman" trades rather too easily on Huston's talent for coldly ironic phrase-turning. But these are minor quibbles. The sixteen poems contained in Pencil Test showcase a poet clearly in command of her art.


Visit Karla Huston's website for ordering information.


Bob Wake is editor of the Cambridge Book Review.

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