The poems of Anne Champion’s debut collection, Reluctant Mistress, obsessively pick at the physical and emotional aspects of sexual relationships—often unhappily. The title is inspired by Cassandra, the beautiful woman whom the god Apollo loved and granted the gift of prophecy. Seeing is painful, though; Champion writes that Cassandra is “Apollo’s reluctant mistress,” aware that “what he gave me was a gift, / but the gift was the same as the curse.” Champion’s Cassandra “prays for the ability to take root somewhere.” Her prayer recalls another of Apollo’s reluctant lovers, the subject of Champion’s poem “Daphne, Upon Transformation.” To escape the handsome sun god’s unwanted advances, the nymph Daphne transfigures into a laurel tree. Neither Cassandra’s nor Daphne’s end is entirely happy.
While these poems, and a few others, live in the realms of Greek mythology, most have a solid—almost squalid—foothold in contemporary reality. In one poem there is a conversation with the landlady about whether turkeys or raccoons have upended the trashcan. In another, the speaker has a tryst with her lover in his bathroom so his child, elsewhere in the house, does not hear. The world of the poems is unbeautiful, a reality seen coldly in its imperfections and shabbiness.
The relationships that fail or dissatisfy in some way, leaving the speaker alone, belong to this world, where the mistress knows her gift is also a curse. The awareness of the women in the poems is curse-blessing; they have no illusions that the married men they are seeing will leave their wives, or that the reconciliations with the exes will happen. The titles alone give away this sense: “End of the Affair,” “The Way you Left,” “Eros’ Defeat,” “Villanelle for Past Lovers,” “After You Cheat,” and “The Morning After,” to name a few. Even “Reconciling with the Ex,” despite the title, has no reconciliation, but rather the acknowledgement that any future with this former lover is a “childlike delusion.”
Ambivalence towards romantic relationships is most explicit in the descriptions of sex, which are often clinical and off-putting. Champion’s descriptions of the act present it as mechanical and ugly. “Ode to the Places We Fuck” has some particularly unpleasant images: sex in a playground is described with “torsos skewered upon the abandoned;” there is sex in a bathroom stall, a “vomit pit.” In “Wild Things” the language turns animalistic, with Champion’s speaker “in heat” and “bending over to be mounted” like a baboon; she says herself that there is “nothing tenderly human about it.” The language is ugly as hell. It makes the poems difficult to read at times, this utter lack of redemption.
The best poems are Champion’s longer, multi-part pieces like “Words” and “Inheritance,” which in their extended length also manage a grain of tenderness and develop an idea over several discrete sections. “Words,” for instance, is more playful than most of the pieces in the collection. Consider the first stanza:
We tossed them back and forth
like grade school dodge ball champs.
Every time I ducked beneath one,
I watched it sprout dark feathers
and hover above us,
a vulture circling
long after the conversation turned
to something more appropriate.
There is an Emily Dickinson–like riddling quality to the poem. Some of the language, too, seems drawn from Dickinson. The image of words being lofted in the air evokes Dickinson directly:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all[.]
Champion’s “thing with features” is no songbird, but a vulture—a scavenger like the creature who ravishes the landlady’s garbage cans in “Wild Things.” The words Champion summons are not hopeful, but ominous, hovering. Flirtation, she asserts, can be dangerous. In a later stanza, “3) Idle Talk,” words are no longer vultures, but mosquitoes, “half invisible.” The words may be less prominent, at this point, but they are just as dangerous, just as parasitical. By the fourth stanza, “4) Charade,” words become wolfish: “They never come alone, / always bring a pack of unwelcome cohorts / in their wake.” The words are shape-shifters, bogeymen, indistinct threats that cannot be pinned down. By the end of the poem, they are largely unneeded; the language is physical, and the only words the two bodies can muster are “Oh god oh god.”
God, however, offers no redemption. It is a meaningless word, an animalistic syllable. The speaker in “Words” has “lost all faith”—not only faith in words, but in anything outside the sexual encounter. Faithlessness, indeed, is doubly significant in Champion’s poems. They deal with infidelity, adulterers, affairs, but also point to a rejection of spiritual faith. “Ode to the Orgasm,” climaxes with the “the one thing that makes me call / God’s name in praise.” Again the poem dissolves into meaningless sounds, the chaos of sex; the last line reads “oh, oh, oh.”
Throughout the collection, there is a tension in the speakers between cynicism and some kind of meaning. Cassandra’s gift/curse of prophecy looms large. In one poem the speaker, desperate for knowledge, visits a psychic and buys tarot cards. She recalls, as a child, playing with a Ouija board with a friend in “Dabbling in the Occult.” These attempts at figuring out the future—and striving for meaning—read as acts of desperation, defiantly at odds with the carefully stated and deliberate rejection of god in other pieces in the book. There is cognitive dissonance, here: a desire to believe in something, but a total inability. It is rational and irrational at once, both hopeful and without hope, and precisely aware of what it is to be someone’s mistress: the fairytale of the man who loves you, who showers you with affection, but always returns to his wife and child. You know your position is unsustainable: an airy, lovely, cruel illusion. You want to believe but cannot. You know the future but cannot change a thing.
Champion’s poems are full of this double-sense: relishing the physical, but tormented and conflicted. They are in the tradition of the confessional poems of Sharon Olds: ugly, tormented, and sometimes tender when least expected. Sex serves as the mirage of redemption, but sex is clinical, cold and empty. Words, too, are emptied of any sense, leaving the syllabic mantra “oh, oh, oh.”
Nora Delaney is a poet, translator, and critic. She received her PhD from the Editorial Institute of Boston University. Her writing can be found in Literary Imagination, Two Lines Online, Absinthe: New European Writing, Subtropics, Pusteblume, Little Star, Fulcrum, The Arts Fuse, and elsewhere.