Review: A Brief Way to Identify a Body by Devon Balwit, Ursus Americanus Press, 2018
by Tricia Marcella Cimera
Sylvia Plath has been marvelously reintroduced to me via Devon Balwit’s latest book, A Brief Way to Identify A Body. She lives again, her poems are amazing and shocking to me in a new way. All because Ms. Balwit, an accomplished poet who finds inspiration literally in everything around her, literary and otherwise, has put her focus on Plath, in particular the later poems. This would seem to be the perfect time to say hello to Sylvia again – the #metoo movement, the furiousness, the creativity, the despair of women at this moment in time. Wars are new (World War II looms in the Plath poems), technology is new; female frustration is still deeply felt.
For someone who has not read Plath in a number of years (and never, sadly, very closely until now), I found it best to read each one of Ms. Balwit’s poems, followed by the Plath poem that inspired it. Certain lines appear exactly as in the original poem: “Somebody is shooting at something in our town—a dull pom, pom in the Sunday street” – used multiple times in Strange Echoes (after Plath’s The Swarm) – while others, such as “Whose is that long white box? Why am I so cold?”, at the end of Harvest Festival (after Plath’s The Bee Meeting) subtly echo the original lines in a ghostly way. I found this reverberance to be very effective. Plath, long dead, is speaking again but in a 21st century poet’s voice that seems to need to bear witness and stand beside, but not over-ride, her fellow poet/wife/mother/woman. And in this, Devon Balwit’s poems succeed beautifully.
Ms. Balwit is a true craftswoman. In Off & On (see Plath’s Fever 103°), she writes “I am nothing, if not / imprecise, even my kisses / wandering, the way I do in bookstores / certain the life-changer is one shelf / over. . .” Her language, if not herself as she admits, is precise and tight. The word elegance always comes to mind when I read a Balwit poem and these are no exceptions. In Poetess, inspired by Plath’s Lesbos, she declares “I cut myself, make myself vomit. See, see? / My eyeshadow screams towards my hairline, / mouth a gash. And I, love, am a pathological liar.” The desperation, the bitter pride drips from the original Plath poem into Balwit’s poem, or is it the other way around? In Impossibles (see Plath’s Purdah), the poem begins with the observation, “It is better / we don’t open / our mouths, / the fairy tale / insistent / that one daughter / will burble jewels / the other / vermin.” – a sharp comment on what constitutes “bad” versus “good” girls, still. And in the beautiful What I Do Well (inspired by Lady Lazarus), Ms. Balwit counsels her (perhaps our collective) daughters at the end, “I can teach you / to be awkward, / inward, / and lonely— / but these three, perfectly.”
It’s difficult to be a woman/wife/mother/lover/artist in this world is what both these poetesses are saying with defiance and imagination. To read them both has been darkly mesmerizing.
*Note from the editor: You can see some examples of Balwit’s intertextual Plath poems in our previous issue here