Book Review

Stroking David’s Leg by Ellaraine Lockie. Kanona, NY: Foothills Publishing, 2009. $10.

Reviewed by Richard Swanson

Poetry as a travel diary—it’s not a new concept (see Byron’s “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”) but one always attractive to poetry readers susceptible to wanderlust.

Ellaraine Lockie’s  Stroking David’s Leg is a world tour with stops in Italy, Germany, Sweden, Spain, Kenya, Bali, Mexico City, Hawaii, Alaska, New Zealand, and London—a waspish itinerary spread over a number of years. The book’s first half is concentrated in Europe; the second, more in Asia and the Southern Hemisphere. In the last pages are some poems with political grist—how it feels being an American abroad. Overall, the author serves up a varied menu of subjects, including, among other topics, how to relate to classic art works (Michelangelo’s “David,” of the title), jet lag, confusion about bidets, roving Italian males, street musicians,  Scandinavian women, seasickness on a cruise boat, and fear of terrorists.

Often what’s important in poetic travel literature is not where the poet go-eth, or what she chooses to put on our plate, but how she can transform conventional experience into something fresh. Turn to page 17, and you’ll see Lockie’s talent for this, when she describes Munich’s airport terminal as an extension of the city’s musical culture—not a place we’d ordinarily think of as a poem’s locus. The building, she says, is

A concert hall hosting silken hums under low ceilings
Soft harmony from passengers
who co-operate in a capella
Accompanied only by the whoosh of air
from well-oiled wheels on free luggage carts
that sail over a smooth sea of marble
And escalators as mellifluent as the floors
Loudspeakers that perform oratories in pianissimo

Or turn to page 13 where, in “Vacation Violation,” Lockie compares hotel theft with rape, the key word “unzipping” referring to a purse, not a pair of pants. Jet-lagged, the narrator sees herself as an

Instrument of invasion
by the intruder standing
at the edge of her bed
His unzipping unheard
Over Leipzinger Street sounds
In her hibernation state
after thirty airline hours

This is a hair-raising depiction made possible by the poet’s adroit use of suggestion.

Part of the joy of travel is having cross-cultural discoveries, anthropological epiphanies. Lockie’s poem “Third World Wisdom,” pays homage to Bali, where same-sex affection is ho-hum, casual, regular behavior. “An Act of Kindness,” recounts how a native Kenyan clues in the narrator about local standards of dress, preventing an ugly situation:  

I see her running toward me
Watch her fall to her knees before me
Button up the lowest five button holes
that fashion the front of my
ankle-length straight skirt

Lockie always seems to write strong lines, and frequently they’re filled with assonance, consonance, and alliteration, the latter scorned by some workshop teachers as something equivalent to herpes. Since alliteration makes speech memorable, it seems to me a perfectly usable technique, and interestingly enough Lockie’s short lines seem to facilitate it, minimizing it visually while its auditory effects sink in. In “Alone in Barcelona” the poet finds herself

Cooled by the skin kiss of mist
from Miró’s mosaic fountain
Perfumed potent scents
from Ramblas street flower stands
And paella taste bud explosions
that parallel fireworks’ color
in flamenco dance costumes

In “Gothenburg Goddesses” she describes the blonde Swedish beauties:

All milk fed
 . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
with baby blue eyes
But nothing baby-like about the bodies
Bare bellies flat between full breasts
and south-slung blue jeans.

Not only do these lines sing; they all have rich sensory detail, and the reader absorbs the alliteration (lines 2+3 in the first quoted passage; 4 + 5 in the second) almost without noticing it’s there.

Could you imagine a better title for a book than Stroking David’s Leg? I can’t. This chapbook is another splendid addition to the Lockie canon, a rich work full of joyful pieces, with a few cautionary asides, about packing one’s bags to see the world.

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).