Book Review

Bar Napkin Sonnets by Moira Egan. Bellport, NY: The Ledge Press, 2009 [Winner of The Ledge 2008 Poetry Chapbook Award]. $9.00. 

Reviewed by Barbara Crooker

Bar napkins, we’ve all seen them, symmetrical white squares.  And we’ve all read sonnets, those “little songs,” also small and shapely.  But here, we have a marriage of form and subject in these elegant formal poems written on ephemeral materials (ink, paper, both easily dissolvable in spilled beer).  What better way could there be to demonstrate Rhina Espaillat’s claim that formal poetry is “dancing in a box”? 

These twenty-four sonnets, a smidge more than a triple corona, function as a crown, with the last line of the first poem ending up as the first line of the next poem, each linked to each, and the first line of the first poem closing the circle (or square, if you will) as the last line of the last poem.  Rich with word play, innovative rhymes, startling images, allusions to both classical and pop culture, this is a book you won’t easily forget, one that will leave you thirsting for more.  And the cover image, Toulouse-Lautrec’s oil painting of Suzanne Valadon, (“The Hangover”) couldn’t be more perfect.

One of the ways I think contemporary sonnets work best is when they contain transgressive, highly charged, or deeply emotional material.  I’m thinking, for example, of the poems of Kim Addonizio (gin, sex, tattoos), Julie Kane (addictive behavior),  Debra Bruce (breast cancer).  Egan does this as well, using as her persona a woman who likes inappropriate men, bad boys who hang out in bars.  Her work flies in the face of that old double standard:  when a man goes on the prowl, he’s a player, a tiger (pardon the pun), but when a woman displays a healthy sexual appetite, she’s a slut.  Egan is unapologetic and unashamed; imagine a 21st century wife of Bath restricting herself to fourteen lines, and you’ll see what I mean.

In these and other contemporary sonnets, (like the ones mentioned in the paragraph above) it’s the tension, I think, that really makes them hum, the tension created when subjects full of messy emotions and bodily fluids are placed in the tidy container of the sonnet.  It’s in this tension that real poetry occurs, as opposed to the merely decorous sonnet, beautifully metered, traditionally rhymed, but for the reader, a beautiful empty shell.

In constructing a sonnet crown, linkage is key. Both the book and its first sonnet begin with the opening line:  “A glass of wine, a napkin, and a pen,” echoing The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, which then repeats itself almost exactly (“and my pen” is the change of phrase)  in the last line of the last sonnet (and of the book).  So that gives the reader a real click, closing the box.  Other times, the lines only link and repeat via a single word, such as “me” at the end of #8 and the beginning of # 9.  Some of the other links are playful:  the “inner vamp” of #1 becomes the drink “Bloody Vampire” in #2, while “You missed the point.” in #2 becomes “he pulls a pint” in #3.  Others require a bit of a leap on the reader’s part, but not a strenuous one, such as “tequila”  in #10 and “mescal” in #11.  Others are more muted:  “with this face floating in the bathroom mirror” (end of #6) and “the face I’m seeing in the bar’s back mirror” (beginning of #7).   Egan has clearly had a good time with this; “Girls just wanna have fun” could be the book’s motto.

The rhymes, an integral part of any sonnet, are a lot of fun, too.  Here are just a few of the ones that tickled my fancy:  Niagara/Viagara (#4), Shiraz/hors d’oeuvres (#4), David Bowie/G &Ts (#6), ouzo/windows (#7), feel a/tequila (#10), “pathology/his sentence, the (#16), my new T.A./Bethlehem, PA (#18)—I think you get the picture!

Which brings me to imagery, those word pictures that are such an important tool in the writer’s paintbox.  How about this for something brilliant and startling:  “I’m punctuation in his sentence, the / period’s stop, the exclamation’s amp, / the comma’s pause, that sharp intake of air.” (#16)  Or this image cluster, with its implied metaphor, the “jade and black / of last night’s makeup clinging to my face,” that Egan compares to a Painted Lady butterfly:  “wings of peach / her camouflage (or flight) her main defense. / She lives on thistle nectar, sometimes hides / in small silk nests high up and out of reach.” (#19)  I’m reminded of Bruce Springsteen’s “Secret Garden” here.

Some of the images accentuate the humor:  “the Men’s Room journey to annulment, quick / as mercury (he thinks), but on his hand / there linger still that ring of skin untanned.” (#15)  Notice, too,  Egan’s skillful handling of the rhythm, and the inherent music in quick/lingers/still/ring/skinned.

Throughout this short collection, Egan displays a deft hand with language.  “I have an Iz- / od allergy” is a hilarious phrase in the “PREPPY GIRL” part of the “bar-test.” (#9)  Yet other lines are memorable for their poignancy (“Who will I be when I’m no longer pretty?”) (#5) or their candor “why we hit stoplights when the heart says, Go—” (#4).  Most of all, I like a woman who sends me to the dictionary:  “erythrocytic rivers” (rivers of blood)(#2).  The book is also rich in allusions, from the aforementioned Rubaiyat to Springsteen (#14), Roethke (#21), Dylan Thomas (#22), and classical mythology in #11 and #14.

In the end, although the speaker says “I want to fall in love, but not for ever,” (#21) she is still optimistic.  And although she admits “I love these bruises, / the set of fingerprints along my hip / that an FBI agent could dust and use,”  in the end, she says, “I sit alone,  / a glass of wine, a napkin, and my pen.” (#24)  And this could be the theme for any woman writer, that a room of her own could be anywhere, even a bar room.  All subjects are fit subjects for a woman’s pen.  Egan completes the crown, connects the circle, and delights her readers with these inventive sonnets, trim and square as the napkins they were composed on, brimming with wit, and ringing with truth.

Barbara  Crooker’s books are Radiance, which won the 2005 Word Press First Book Award and was a finalist for the 2006 Paterson Poetry Prize;  Line Dance (Word Press, 2008), which won the 2009 Paterson Award for Literary Excellence; and More (C&R Press, 2010).   She enjoyed her time working in Wisconsin when she taught at AllWriters in Waukesha, but mostly, she works from her home in rural northeastern Pennsylvania. Three of Crooker's poems appear in the current online issue.