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Kim Addonizio's What Is This Thing Called Love

In Bay Area poet Kim Addonizio's fourth collection, What is This Thing Called Love, a kiss -- and there are plenty -- is not just a kiss.

For Addonizio, who has clearly done her share during her fifty years, kisses are portals into deeper truths, not just fleeting romantic moments. She opens the collection with "First Kiss," which compares the speaker's lover to her newborn daughter, and ends with "Kisses," which entreats the reader, "when I am dead, kiss this poem." Kisses as portals; kisses as birth announcements, gravestones and all the markers in between.

Like the cover image, with its perfume-ad overtness of a lithe woman in panties approaching a young man sleeping on a disheveled bed, the first section focuses on love and sex. These are the most tactile poems in the book and give the greatest sense of setting: a kiss against a chain link fence in front of a burned-out church; the happy bustle of a city at night as two lovers lose each other. Here Addonizio experiments with the paradelle and the sonnenizio, unusual forms that scramble words of a sentence to generate new meanings. She also uses the blues lyric, in which the first two lines of a stanza are repeated with slight variation. She uses the forms to turn eroticism on its ear and expose underlying selfishness, vanity and futility.

The shift in tone from the first to the second section is not subtle. The reader turns from "Dance" to "Death Poem", leaving a ballroom to join the speaker as she drives home from her father's funeral. Yet the poem riffs on the warm, passionate images from the previous section. "I can lean against my friends' shoulders and drink from the bottle being passed around," she says, trying to distract herself from grief.

Section two focuses on loss, illness, and fear as inseparable from passion and love. The slow, suffering death of an old cat reminds the speaker of when her daughter was young; the movie line "everybody dies" serves as license to keep living as moviegoers step out into the night. Page by page, Addonizio paints an answer to the question asked by the book's title. Often, love is mostly loss.

The third section is also dark, but more contemplative and more abstract. It opens with "It", a description of being gripped during childbirth by a powerful and ambiguous force, one that both loves and threatens. Here, love implies not only the risk of losing but also the risk of love congealing into something ugly -- bitterness or envy -- as in the final image in "The Way of the World." Here, Addonizio represents jealousy with lobsters in a restaurant tank, watching the patrons: "They're opening champagne,/ oblivious of you, just as you don't notice/ how many backs you've scrambled over/ to get this far, your black eyes glittering,/your slow limbs grimly and steadily working."

Section four explores the intersection of passion and pain, mostly through memories. "Lush Life" chronicles the accidents, regrets and loneliness of a drinking life, but ends with the party, the flirtation, the music, summing it up in the double entendre of the final line, "just like love, just like it won't ever stop." In this section the speaker starts using crass language, spare but noticeable, and she recalls her heroin use and the times she could have died. But just as often, she sits reading, playing video games, or sipping tea with friends in rehab. She isn't teetering on the edge now, but trying to explain what it felt like.

No one could accuse Addonizio of living the unexamined life, and inevitably her self-examination turns to her own writing. Whether you find this too self-indulgent or not depends on the spell she casts in the run-up to the end. She discusses herself as a poet, and she dissects her own reading of poetry, referring extensively to the Trojan Wars and Helen as touchstones in her life. Writing becomes escapism and healing, a control of adventure, a way to embrace life without driving off its cliffs. Despite the navel-gazing, Addonizio remains grounded, even earthy, ripping into big questions with the wisdom to know she won't find answers. The book could easily be called What is This Thing Called Life; her choice to frame the unpredictable struggle as "love" is a passionate gesture made even grander by the pain she's endured.

What Is This Thing Called Love
By Kim Addonizio
W.W. Norton & Company; ISBN: 0393057267
Hardcover, 80 pages (January 2004)