“Unpacking its Tamer Beasts,” Mary Biddinger’s Partial Genius
by Mary Biddinger
Black Lawrence Press, 2019
Partial Genius is Mary Biddinger’s six full-length collection, and it is grounded thematically with its attention to nostalgia and structurally with its utilization of the prose poem. Biddinger characterizes the form through its units of meaning, “stanzagraphs,” reminiscent of the five-paragraph essay but not at all trite. However, the stubborn organization we learned in high school is, in this context, a generative tool rather than a reductive one that allows the speaker the freedom for subversion — to ultimately create a site of transformation where nostalgia is met with critical inquiry. Some might identify this as the movement from adolescence into adulthood, but it is something tougher to chew on: “adolescents and post-adolescents and post-post-adolescents” (25).
“Some day, you will be hate-watching a Netflix series about your generation” (79), Biddinger writes in “Love Songs of 1992,” as a humorous Gen X attitude closes the collection, calling back to the opening pages:
At my high school reunion, everyone wore the same t-shirt: Same Crap, Different Century. I think they meant decade, but 1992 was not a year of precision. (7)
Humor is the compelling through line, including various emotional frequencies — sometimes the tone is buoyant, other times, it is situated at or near epiphany. Always, there is an undercurrent: a mid-90s suspicion that has been notably mistaken for indifference or cynicism. This extends into an examination of American opulence and suburban malaise, and following a Reagan presidency, all opulence is suspect. Heightened even more so in Trumpian landscape. References to “stray goblets” (15), “slack lawn ornaments” (15), and “hands post-Pine Sol” (41) suggest an astute generational awareness, particularly latchkey, of prosperity’s thin veneer. Feelings of anxiety are intensified in Biddinger’s commitment to the center-justified prose form that carries the entire collection:
I lived in a neighborhood full of homeowners terrified of being first to roll the trash cans down to the curb. (32)
The American Dream proves to be unfulfilling. From “Elevator Pitch”:
She wore a wife uniform. Her hands were post-Pine Sol. The entire machinery around her was bedazzled with things not dazzling, such as artificial diamond flecks or imitation cinnamon sticks, the kind that are actually tampons and have to be purchased at a specialty store. (41)
What is striking in these lines is how visible the performance is. Objects are obvious fakes and poor approximations, and with each detail that emerges, the idea of success is destabilized. All that glitters is not gold: “So much light is just litter” (15). Biddinger draws our attention to what capitalism breeds, mundane repetition. We have not only repeated the past but continuously rehearse it, making its performative aspects all-too perceptible. Embracing (whether conscious or not) opulence to declare we have made it:
First the teenagers rebelled against history, and then they internalized it. (66)
These prose poems are defiant, just like the speaker, and ethos lies (at times reluctantly) within the speaker rather than traditional authority figures rooted in an American WASPiness:
I loved being around smart people when they were neither pontificating nor mansplaining. Except if they were discussing […] the entire world a conspiracy tapping holes in pint glasses and hollow legs, like my beauty was constructed by a god and not two bored teenagers. (11)
In “Shared Governance,” the speaker states, “An idea is both a box and its contents, said my favorite philosopher. Or perhaps that was me” (53). Instead of turning to our founding fathers or parental figures or classical icons for guidance, the speaker consults patrons at a bar, a Ouija board, her own “partial genius.” The touchstones taken for granted have been readjusted, particularly with the references to France (“Bastille Day,” “Notre Dame de Paris”), turning the lens toward another center:
To think that twenty years ago I had been the French club president, who refused to speak to anyone in English, flung inauthentic pastries into the nearest trash compactor. My sandals sounded like gunshots and I loved it. (74)
It is not that the speaker glorifies French culture; rather, she files it under a historical trajectory of oppression and abuse by those in positions of power. And aligns contemporary American class struggles with those from the past, suggesting that, perhaps, we are not so removed or distanced from an 18th century Paris teetering on the edge of revolution. “Gunshots” point our attention to empty patriotism and blank veneration: “I was just another old church packed with jackets and sermons” (26). The disembodiment, in combination with the medieval cathedral used figuratively, suggests that, perhaps, what we are far removed from is reverence itself. What is it that we have truly come to admire? Is it our fresh-cut lawns? Our own mediocrity?
Each end-stopped stanzagraph builds meaning onto the previous one, until the collection transforms into one long poem. Definition and categorization of the prose poem has always been slippery, just like memory or nostalgia, and there is a critical mass of images referencing water, ships, and boats intensifying assorted instabilities, from wholesome Midwestern attitudes to adulthood’s achievements that supposedly guarantee safety and security: “None of the story problems in high school explained why I was the kind of girl no one would give a ring to” (18). The stanzagraphs effectively shelter the voice and experiences and anxieties of the speaker.
“It’s not the closeness, but the cracks of light,” (52) Biddinger writes as if she is offering insight into the logic of the prose form. In between each stanzagraph, each crack of light, there is meaning at full intensity, not an absence of it. Where meaning converges, not subsides. For me, this collection is in direct conversation with Beckian Fritz Goldberg’s collection of prose poems, Egypt from Space, and Glenn Shaheen’s flash fiction, Carnivalia, in that critique is an act of reverence.
From “A Radical Suggestion”: “do you think we’ll ever go back? But isn’t that the premise of every book?” (40). While this collection is one of looking back, Mary Biddinger’s Partial Genius invites readers to be actively inventing possibilities that lie ahead.
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