Book Review: Two Menus

By Andréa Ferrell Gannon

Rachel DeWoskin is a five-time novelist and memoirist. Two Menus is her debut poetry collection which, despite being billed as poetry, does not escape a certain delicious fictionness, like here: “The night Des tore her hair out, it was literal. / White sheets beneath her lit the hospital,” or here: “Today, school again in the wrong / boots, dress Kari S. writes along / my locker ‘bitch.’ She still / leaves me notes: ‘I hope you die – I will.”

These story-like poems, accessible to even the finickiest nonreaders of poetry, travel fast and span a lifetime of a woman as recounted by an accidental sex-symbol of the Chinese soap opera “Foreign Babes in Beijing,” later turned author, wife, mother, and university professor.

“Remembering is falling,” writes DeWoskin, and she brings us with her down a waterfall of words, passing through Beijing, crossing under an Ozark sun, and over Oregon mountains, navigating countries, cultures, and languages. She dives into the past and wanders into the future, wondering how and where will we be until we end. In the space between, she brings us reminders to live life full-heartedly and to jump into love full-bodily: “Let me love you without / believing as I used to that we’re safe, may last. Instead, / let’s peel, strip raw, find what matters, move against each other and whatever this is.”

For DeWoskin, love and marriage are as extreme a sport as bungee jumping, white water rafting, or rock climbing. “Let’s jump,” she writes, “a cord snaps / back, keeps us from the dirt another day. Perhaps …”

Add practical application to such wisdom, like what is needed and appreciated on a prison visit, or how to confront loss and deep sadness: “Here’s how / we stay human even torched by sorrow: / stare at my (it might be your) tomorrow,” and we have a surprising and thrilling debut collection.

As we travel from the first poem, “The Blind Massage Parlour,” to the last, “Too,” we hear a woman grow from silence into a full-throated claim to be heard. First, mute, she lies atop a healing massage table in China, listening to doctors insist that Titanic is a stupid movie and that Americans are ignorant in matters of love.

I make shy eye contact with the client

in a bed across the row. We are the only two

here today. I think she loves Titanic

from the delicate way she lifts

her neck to look at me, confused.

Yet, neither woman asserts an argument. Pages race by in a flurry of forms and we experience the author not only finding her voice, but imploring us to join her in chorus, and mean it. “Don’t pack words / in your furious marrow, shout out / what we made: language, all the babies, hell, ourselves.”

Particularly delightful is the exciting and eye-catching ways the poet masters form. In “I Was Dancing When I Heard,” the words and the world tilt at the news that a lover has moved on.

           I was dancing.

                  When I heard you’re

           getting married,

                  I was dancing. And reeling

          just a bit on impact, just

                   a little impact. Just a bit.

Likewise, the words inside the lines of “Girls at 1001 Nights” undulate and thrust, imitating the motions of the belly dancer within:

We were small-talk and falafel

      when she shimmered from the kitchen gold all

              over, tables suddenly full

                      of hungry people. A beautiful lull

                      in conversation, now she pushed her right

              side into air so thick the room bulged tight.

       A man in yellow blew fruit hookah smoke

and bellowed, singing, took a toke

The title is Two Menus, but perhaps the poem most illustrative of the power and brilliance of this poet may be “Horse Fair,” where language’s spirit and aliveness burst within constraints of form, much like a carousel horse who “raged away, / tore off his pole still twisting up and up, / no longer through his stomach out his back, no fear. Imagine: no fear! Now I’ve made it so it happened. Here.” And though a plastic horse will outlast us all, with the language that the poet harnesses, she immortalizes herself.

About that title. Bitterness and Happiness is a restaurant in Beijing that offers two menus, one with a selection of excess, the second scarcity. We find those contradictions in this collection—pain/joy; heartbreak/fusion; language/silence—all here to read in this remarkable debut, a veritable smorgasbord to appeal in equal measure to both the poetry finicky and the poem gourmand. Bon appétit.

Andréa Ferrell Gannon is currently the poetry editor at The Coachella Review and an MFA candidate at UC Riverside’s Palm Desert campus. She works as a World Languages teacher and raises two boys to men.