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 Richard Swanson

Sonnets seem to be back in vogue. Equally trendy is writing by women about women in the world of sexual cruising. Moira Egan’s chapbook combines the two.

Reading the sexual narratives in these kinds of poems frequently raises some questions: Are these actual sexual encounters or fantasies, the poem-teller an alter-ego or real person? At some level, I guess, the questions don’t need answering if the tales play well, and Egan’s narratives certainly have varied, erotic allure. The narrator’s one-night stand lovers include guys younger and older than her, guys from different countries, a heartless cardiologist (what a great oxymoron), her student, a one-night-stand adulterer, a David Bowie look-alike, and a woman as randy as she is. Most of the encounters start in bars and end elsewhere, one in the back seat of a car. There’s a threesome scene, oral sex, and an aside on the fallibility of condoms, if you keep lists of such things. All in all, the pages give off a lot of moody steam.

Egan has a good eye for bar seduction routines and an equally good understanding of morning-after rituals. Her narrator (early forties) also takes us out of the heaty moment occasionally, wondering how her face in the powder room mirror once looked and will look in the future. Many of the poems derive their effective tension from the paradoxes of the sexual scene, and her role in it. She’s hopelessly infatuated at times, totally turned off at others, on the prowl and prey, Painted Lady/Cosmo girl and self-admitted slut.

At times the sonnets lack some finish. Most rely heavily on half-rhyming, which Egan handles well, but in some places awkward syntax disrupts narrative flow, and rhythms degenerate into prose. Egan is capable of really terrific lines like the following gem:

I’ve heard this wobble called “the walk of shame,”
the morning-after strut/limp back
to my own bed, the evenings in the sack
involving nothing close to love or blame . . . .

But I wish a handful of the poems had undergone one more revision. (Okay, this may be  carping, but I’ve been spoiled by the polish of sonneteers like Philip Dacey, Marilyn L.Taylor, Ron Wallace, Denise Duhamel, and Richard Merelman.) The book is also a crown of sonnets but only in the loosest sense, each poem’s last line linked to the first line of the next only by the repetition of a single word.

As the jacket text notes, the last woman poet to do something comparable to this sexual revelation adventure—in formal poetry, that is—was Edna St. Vincent Millay. Give credit to Egan for an ambitious effort, something like going up against Meryl Streep in an acting audition. Readers who prefer free verse efforts in this same genre should seek out works by Cathryn Cofell, Karla Huston, and Ellaraine Lockie.

My favorite poem in this short collection is one about the worm in the Mescal bottle, which Egan adroitly turns into a symbol with multiple meanings. Her narrator also utters one of the great lines of feminine seduction literature, when she eyes a male target and says “I’ll Molly Bloom him into my lair.” What a gem.

Richard Swanson lives in Madison, Wisconsin where he reads, gardens, and writes. His previous volume was Men in the Nude in Socks (Fireweed, 2006). His latest book is Not Quite Eden (Fireweed Press).