Kathleen Balma’s exciting and wildly inventive collection, provocatively titled From Your Hostess at the T&A Museum, pulls off that most difficult of hat tricks in poetry: In addition to being intuitive, surprising and wise, it’s also very funny. With subjects ranging from ancient Pompeii’s red-light district to genetically modified crop conspiracies to the needs of ghosts and the study of a rare breed of monkeys, Balma sends words and images in search of adventure, insight and delight.
With a deft, skilled hand that swirls together some Billy-Collins-style eccentric sentimentality with a dash of Albert Goldbarth’s magpie curiosity and crowbar intelligence for prying into the darker corners of the human heart, Balma proceeds with a deep curiosity about what makes us tick. And tock.
Consider “A Tour of Pompeii’s Red-Light District,” a poem that begins by safely distancing us from the dangerous and uncontrollable sexual passions that have driven our behavior far longer than even the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD: “Along the top/ edge of hall// (where a wall-/paper border// might go) is porn so old/ we feel safe// saying “art”/ and smiling.”
In “Dotage,” a rueful meditation on lovers growing old, she wonders if, years later when she begins to “slide into a sadder sack of myself,” her partner will “touch the future me as I will want.” And in “Temporary Empathy,” she offers her take on the pressures and uncertainties of motherly care and concern: “…The gerbil mother// sans stress feeds her young./ In medium stress she eats them.”
No surprise, poetry this ambitious doesn’t always succeed. The reliance on dubious puns can be wearing: for example, in the poem on crop conspiracies, egregious examples pile up in the silo: “ears are for eavesdropping,” “good guys with grits,” “Frankenstalks,” “homegrown corn dogs of war,” “Feed them, and know peas and hominy.’”
But that’s a quibble. This is an accomplished poetry collection sure to leave you wiser and happier than when you began it.