Unbecoming Behavior by Kate Colby
(Ugly Duckling Presse, Brooklyn, 2008)
Triangulate from every point
to divine the solar plexus
Kate Colby's Unbecoming Behavior examines Jane Bowles’ biography through an imaginative parsing of sensory detail, autobiographical detail and critique of creative process. The long poem is as engaging and resonant as the subject matter is rich.
Bowles’ standard story is all ex-pat american trainwreck Woman Writer, and the familiarity of the narrative arc is eerie and irritating. Colby splices Bowles’ life together with her own and capitalizes on the scattered energies of life-retold-as-cliché -- successful writer husband, writers block, and creative depression. The biography is a fulcrum rather than a focus, centering the reflective charge of Colby's drive to reimagine. We follow the poet ''I'':
The summer I was seven, the gypsy
moths infested, caterpillars wriggled
from the sky, tangled in my ratty
hair, formed knots, crawling skin,
shivers, peristaltic on the sidewalk.
Then follow a shift to third person with Jane Bowles:
Caterpillars gather periodically,
climb to the tips of branches
and dangle from silk threads,
catch the wind to a new location
in a practice called ''ballooning.''
Jane refuses majoun
lest things begin to flicker
in the corner of her eye,
And so on, back and forth, in a tensile and expanding structure compounded by transchronologic confusions. Transitions are high points throughout the poem, with moth larvae swinging toward Jane's surrender to transience. The passage of time poses questions of influence: can the imagined future ''poet I'' critic enter the scene at the edge of the poet’s own sight, a hovering audience? And when does considering predecessors shade into weird narcissism? It’s a vein of nervous energy that Colby mines to great effect. Why are you interested in crazy Jane Bowles, with her awful personal narratives a bigger story than her stories?
There are many reasons, and Colby takes them on in a high risk interrogation: how embarrassing-cliche to work on an acknowledged and berated cliche, embarrassing-juvenile to mobilize the fascination with lineage and lady-author role models, embarrassing-pompous to set one’s creative autobiography against acclaimed and mythologized biography. Unbecoming Behavior confronts these fills the reductive frame with strange and strong language.
Colby's interrogation of her own methods proves the core of the book: ''Consider yourself / at home in this poem...''. but shortly thereafter we are asked: '' Are you lost / yet / in syntactic gymnastics. ''
cannibalizing my own
cast-off poems, I am
the mother of necessity
She clears a space for bare, resonant phrasing:
How to out-do what happens
to be true. To be cancelled.
Crest, meet trough,
I am nothing if not
The parallels develop toward criticism and the rigor gives the reveries spine. Colby interrupts a series of east coast family memories (“... lures of lobster buoys”. . . “tiny wicket / ring around / the Cape shaped house”) to discount them:
-- over here futzing
Must keep moving
left hand know what right's doing.
-- cut, cue curtain
to whats after
(building my brand
of historic invention.)
The cuts and cues are graceful, as is Colby’s entire project of spliced sound, color, and ventriloquized experience. Unbecoming Behavior seeks a new motion within the reductive biography narrative-arc. Rejecting analogy (“things that ring /false, like similies”) in favor of assonance and repetition, the poem layers reflective description and sound to craft multiple images with thoughts rolling from source to source.
Thematic repetition is more open than symmetrical pairings. When the pairings outgrow their constraints they develop instead to a multiplicity of echoes, like splitting branches. Instead of Bowles is to Colby, it becomes Colby is to Bowles is to Cherifa is to Jim Thompson, etc. In forging this model based in repetition, and in making beautiful work of faulty legacy, Unbecoming Behavior puts a confrontation with literary legacy to work. What emerges is a startling and energetic new form, built of language that is both perceptive and as foreign as a story you invent yourself.
[* I thought knowledge of Bowles biography and Colby's other works opened the poem up and made the reading more rewarding, but be warned that Colby advises it’s not necessary. Interview at http://www.bookslut.com/features/2008_03_012506.php .]
Denise Dooley lives in Rogers Park, Chicago. She writes poetry and fiction and works in science education outreach at Northwestern.