Talking Pillow by Angela Ball
Reviewed by Charles Rammelkamp
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017
$15.95, 72 pages
A “talking pillow” is a terrific metaphor for a dream. Certainly Angela Ball’s poems have the free-associative logic of dreams, the sometimes painful intimacy and stark honesty of dreams. The eponymous poem concludes with the words of the pillow:
Said, “Your last love was best.
He is gone. We bear
nor will we bear any
Said, “This is a matter of fate.”
Fate said, “This is your silence.
It will conform to you.”
Ball’s last love was her partner of a decade, Michael Helwick, who died from a heart attack in August, 2015, while they were vacationing in the Smokey Mountains. Talking Pillow is dedicated to his memory.
You can hear the sorrow and the survivor’s guilt all through “Talking Pillow.” In the long poem, “Elegy,” with the same atmosphere of dream, Ball tells the story of Michael’s death with the unflinching detail that only occurs in dreams, when the self-defense of denial is at its lowest level of resistance.
I was watching the movie Michael chose for me,
Scandal Sheet, 1952, with Broderick Crawford and Donna Reed.
Michael was in the bathroom, place of danger. Was,
in fact, dying.
The squad arrived, positioned him,
applied the riveting voltage.
The next day they were going to a magic show, at Michael’s insistence, her reluctance. You hear the regret in the confession. And then:
Arrived at Emergency, the first of grief’s little rooms
with its fresh supply of tissues. I didn’t see Michael.
He was being prepped
for transport to the city:
a pallet swung, a spinneret of wings.
I drove after, to the big hospital. Shut all down
one side, as if by stroke.
His chute-like bed. The black
board’s goal of the day:
Wean From Ventilator.
When visiting hours ended, I was shown
to a room with grief’s La-Z Boys,
grief’s Barcaloungers. People on and off
The poem goes on for several more pages with such heartbreaking detail, shifting in time back to the hotel room, forward to the cemetery, back again, as in a dream.
Breath held too long while my eyes and brain took in
Scandal Sheet, while Michael was scandalously
alone then more
much more alone.
Needless to say, this is a very touching poem, whose gut-wrenching detail is nevertheless related with the seemingly dispassionate objectivity of dreams, which makes it all the more affecting, ultimately.
Talking Pillow is not all sorrow, though. A subtle humor is at work, too, as in titles like “Some Regrets that Will Attend You When You May Have Kicked the Seat of the Patron in Front of You at the Movie Theater Too Often,” “Unformed Personality Disorder (UPD),” and “The Woman Who Works in the Medical Supply Store Is Strange. So Is a Detective.” These and others, such as “FBI Story,” also have the dream-like quality of events jumping from here to there without apparent cause or connection. “Some Regrets…,” for instance, begins:
A sad milkman drops the milk
and enters a strange basement
to use the restroom. A repentant fox runs past,
looking transparent like a slide of fire.
“Intercourse After Death Presents Special Difficulties,” is another title that raises a smile, playing as it does on the unbidden sex dreams we all have, in bizarre circumstances, with unlikely partners. In this case, we infer the poem refers to Ball’s lost love.
I love you, I want to have sex
with you. It is so damned awkward.
So many explanations
required, having to stare down
the salacious and insist
on a conjugal visit to the after-
life. Nothing like a movie: some sexy actress
roped in pearls, masturbating to a dime store
photograph. Nothing like ancient Egypt, men with false
penises attached to their mummies, action ready….
Other poems, for example “Sporadic Gun Catalogue with Line from ‘Gerontion’,” address compelling social issues, in this case the pervasiveness of gun culture. Ball lives and writes in Mississippi, the heart of “Guns and God” country. The poem intersperses details of weapons from a gun catalogue with the haunting line from Eliot’s dramatic monologue, which is spoken in the voice of an elderly man about the horror of Europe after World War One. After such knowledge, what forgiveness?
It should not be surprising that such dream-saturated poetry contains so many references to magic and angels and demons throughout (“…the desire / to converse with Satan in the form / of a dog or cat….” from “What Is Pleasure” and a lovely allusion to biblical Isaac in “Spontaneous Autobiographical Revelation,” for instance).
Angela Ball’s brave, playful, even “mystical” verse, with equal measures of mourning and mirth, has that dislocating feel of magic realism. The final stanza of the poem, “Second Elegy,” provides a vivid, quintessential image of all of these elements of her dream-like poetry, the pleasures it offers:
The male drivers of Michael’s family
shared one trait: unconditional animus
for fellow motorists. Sin of sins:
Following Too Closely. The freeway response:
Slow Down. The street response:
Pull Over Brusquely,
let the bastard pass.