Guest Review: 'Guinevere in Baltimore'
A review of Shelley Puhak's poetry collection, by Katherine Hoerth.
Guinevere in Baltimore. Shelley Puhak. Waywiser Press. 2013. $16.95 paper, $8.25 Kindle.
**Review by Katherine Hoerth
We all have at least a passing familiarity with the characters of Arthurian legend – noble king Arthur; his knight, Sir Lancelot; and, of course, Arthur's queen, Guinevere. From Tennyson to Sinclair Lewis to Dorothy Parker and even Tolkien, poets and writers have been retelling and revising these characters’ stories for centuries. In her latest collection, Guinevere in Baltimore, Shelley Puhak continues this tradition in a slightly different manner, through a series of dramatic monologues by these characters, who seem both familiar and new.
The most obvious difference is the updated setting: modern-day Baltimore. At times, we’re in the Apple Store with Lancelot, “seeking help / for [his] silvered one,” the Starbucks line with Arthur worrying about a “merger and the Board” or in front of the Bromo Seltzer Tower, “that stone hard on…fifteen floors of mortar, brick…steel ribs” and a “four-sided clock.”
But it’s the characterization of Guinevere that’s most compelling. Usually epics and legends are told from a singular, male perspective, but revisionist versions like Guinevere in Baltimore are important because they decenter the patriarchal narrative and make us re-examine not only women of legend, such as Guinevere, but ourselves, too. Here we get a multitude of voices and versions of Guinevere’s character. Guinevere, or “Ginny,” as she’s affectionately called, is both victim and villain.
In Lancelot’s monologues, Guinevere develops as an object of desire. In the poem “Lancelot, En Route, Stopping Off at Fort McHenry,” he compares Guinevere’s mouth to the city of Baltimore, intermixing erotic images with urban snippets as he travels “the rim of highway // like the crease of your lips,” through the “swath / of city … jutting up like teeth too-crowded in the bay’s / small mouth .. light glinting // off your fillings.” The city, it seems, is too much for Lancelot:
… I’ve seen and Ginny, darling
I can no longer breathe. Throbbing, I got off
The interstate, cut through an industrial park.
Then I saw an alley named Excalibur Drive.
How could I not pull over and sob?
All of this causes his impurity, the reason his heart is “clotted up / with more than cholesterol.” The poem ends with Lancelot addressing Guinevere herself: “There’s a city stuffed in your mouth.”
King Arthur, however, paints a very different portrait of his wife. Instead of temptress, he sees a victim, a woman ravaged by mental illness to the point of helplessness. In his monologues, she’s described as a woman who has “fallen sick,” “flush with fever” or “stares // at the carpet, smiling at some spot or / stain.” In the poem “Arthur to Guinevere, while Watching Occupy Wall Street Unfold on the Evening News,” the king theorizes that her infidelity is a symptom of her illness, that a “snail fever… creates / an ache between our legs we might mistake // for desire.” Towards the end of the poem, he encourages them to “occupy / one another and forget the tents,” their surroundings, her sickness, the parasites that surely infect her brain that he hears when he puts his head to her breast.
The most compelling poems are those told from Guinevere’s perspective. They offer insight into the complexities of a woman filled with passion and guilt, sanity and madness, regret and love. The book’s opening poem, “On Having Sex, Grief-Stricken,” is a great example of this, where images of the act are intermixed with depression. What should be intimate is isolating:
Look at one another.
I straddle you, sobbing.
I’m stunned our bodies
Can still screw
Together, the threads
Can catch: …
Arthur falls ill here, as in traditional legend, but now from an enlarged prostate. This provides a crux in the collection where everything seems to unravel, and Guinevere, comparing her love of Lancelot to a love of fast food (“my heart wants what the heart / wants: a hamburger”), is racked with guilt. Addressing Lancelot, she explains how their love “is the seed of all / dismay that will follow,” which is, of course, a reference to Arthur’s coming death. This change of events sparks a change of heart in Guinevere, which is illustrated in the poem “Guinevere to Arthur, on Starting Over,” where she begs him to “go back to Cornwall, back to / the drawing board, back to being /drawers” and compares their marriage to an old piece of furniture, a “hulking antique” that’s both beautiful and imperfect.
But just a few pages later the poem “Guinevere, Meeting Lancelot in the Walters Art Gallery” details a bittersweet dalliance between the two lovers, “Between mummies and saint’s reliquaries,” and Guinevere becomes neither (re)devoted wife, nor mere adulteress. She’s both, at once, and something else entirely.
Guinevere in Baltimore, which Charles Simic chose for the Eighth Annual Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize, provides readers with a fresh Arthurian legend—the heat of passion, the unraveling of a romance, and the bitterness of regret. But the collection is more than an updating. It re-examines and complicates Guinevere’s character, gives her her own voice, and lets her offer her own account of the story and herself. In this it functions as a feminist revision that’s sympathetic, rounded, and most importantly, wholly relatable.
Katherine Hoerth is the author of two poetry collections, The Garden Uprooted (Slough Press, 2012), and Goddess Wears Cowboy Boots (Lamar University Press, 2014). Her work has been published in journals such as Pleiades, Rattle, and Front Porch. She teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Texas Pan American. Visit her online here.
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