A review of All Beautiful & Useless by C. Kubasta
by Stacy Cartledge
C. Kubasta, All Beautiful & Useless. New York: BlazeVox, 2015. 104 pp.
It’s not until the penultimate poem of C. Kubasta’s first full-length collection that we
learn the book’s title, All Beautiful & Useless, comes from a description of “a roadkill
doe” and her “twin fawns.” While the image may echo Stafford’s “Traveling through
the Dark,” Kubasta engages in a different comparison—but more on that later.
Kubasta’s nascent deer wind up bottled in formaldehyde for high school science
students to study. In taking this particular description for the collection’s title, she
indicates that her poems are like these fawns: beautiful & horrifying, fascinating &
fragmented, compelling yet malleable objects d’étude.
She’s not wrong.
Take, for example, Kubasta’s continuing gestures towards the epic. The book is divided
into three sections, each with its own set of poems, yet these poems collude with one
another, picking up previous motifs at unexpected moments and connecting
conversations that the reader realizes only in retrospect are still continuing. Because
she wants these poems to accomplish so much, there are some occasional slides into
indulgence, but one must admire Kubasta’s brazenness, which stops short of hubris yet
allows her to appropriate at will, to use any genre, voice, or technique towards her
purpose. I’m thinking here especially of some noteworthy structural choices made in
the last three poems of the book’s first section: a modified sonnet set (“A Consideration
of Whether Time is Tensed or Tense-less” & “To What Degree Past, Present and
Future is Equally Real”) and a genre-bending piece, “Sweetbitter,” a poem in
screenplay format in which the poem being in screenplay format is one of its topics.
This piece in particular articulates a central tension in Kubatsa’s work:
The problem is the poet is always
the subject of the poem. Always,
even when (especially then)
The dilemma is a real one, and there is no doubt in the verdict Kubasta renders here. I
can’t disagree, either (though I don’t necessarily concur that the verdict should be
quite so liberating). Turning back to the rest of part one with this artistic principle in
mind, we see just how Kubasta’s voice interweaves—sometimes echoing, sometimes
juxtaposing, sometimes paralleling—that of nine-year-old Elizabeth Parris, accuser of
witches in Salem and daughter of that town’s Reverend. Kubasta also speaks to and of
her own father in this multipart poem, which considers itself an act that invites a
declaration of war (“Casus Belli”). It may seem fitting, then, that there are military-style
redactions in the section dealing with the father. One could be forgiven for assuming
them to be simple artifice, the thick black line a gimmick rather than a true redaction.
However, it should be known that this is not the case. As I am reviewing the
manuscript in its galley proof (the book was published the first week of September
2015, after I accepted the assignment), I received the manuscript in electronic form—
twice, in fact, and I think erroneously. In one draft, the redacted passages are not
blacked out. I won’t violate the poet’s wishes, but I will say I disagree with the decision
to eliminate so much material. The speaker’s assertion that there are stories that could
be told does not approach the power of the stories themselves in developing the
father’s character and the daughter’s relationship to him. When she says, “I’m afraid
he will ask me questions and I will tell the truth,” the redactions inform the reader that
it won’t be the whole truth.
This speaker who holds back is hard to reconcile with the one from the book’s second
and third sections, who unflinchingly examines the monstrosity of childhood sexual
abuse and the horrors of serial killer Ed Gein (the true-life template for Hitchcock’s
Norman Bates) with such nuance and honesty that it becomes a kind of compassion. In
allowing compelling beauty to be ascertained from horrendous acts, she elicits from
the reader time and again a response as profound and powerful as any I have ever felt
from a reading experience.
One case in point is the aforementioned poem about the “bottle[ed] twin fawns”; its
title, “Putting By,” refers to canning food and thus plays on the idea of nourishment
(reinforced by the description of the fawns in “gigantic mason jars, seal[ed] tight /
before they could wake”); even the doe, “hang[ing] there [from the garage ceiling] like
a prize” is reminiscent of the sustenance of a successful hunt. This could have been,
like Stafford’s poem, a poem recognizing the harsh realities of life and death with an
added measure of the grotesque. However, as mentioned earlier Kubasta ignores
Stafford, instead tying these images to murderer Ed Gein; the doe becomes Bernice
Worden, whom police found “dressed out like a deer” when they arrested Gein, and
Kubasta tells us that when she considers the women he killed, “I don’t think of the
women anymore. I remember the doe with / her twins. Their mute eyes, gums, sweet
mouths closed.” The trading of sets of victims, and even at times victims and
perpetrators, and in this example nutrition and slaughter, delves into a truth beyond
Stafford’s, one as grim as it is overwhelming.
“Putting By” comes from the book’s third section, which investigates exhumation using
the recurring trope of Ed Gein’s horrifying, hobby-like artifacts. Kubasta does the
same, dissecting old poems and the men that inhabit them in “Excavation Remix,”
where she confesses
None of these “him’s” survive today. Each eclipsed, rewritten, called
early work, preface…
…I am sorry
for each box made, wrought, and pretended
…I am both appalled
and in love with my [former] self.
This dichotomous feeling, of being both appalled and in love, is something Kubasta
has captured and somehow sprinkled throughout all three parts of the collection. The
reader is moved by a succession of such lines, sometimes but not always manifesting
themselves in parenthetical interruptions of her own poems or comments upon the
writing of them, that arrest both the reading and the reader. Like Ed Gein’s mother,
she has “…become adept / at saving and stealing and making good from the dross /
those less in love with their own pain / throw out.” These asides play a large role in the
poems, and the grammatical dissonances that sometimes accompany them serve to
push them even further out of ‘the poem’ and paradoxically further into the
foreground—almost as if each poem holds a perpendicular discourse within itself, as if
it carries a remnant twin. In this way, Kubasta reminds us that this is not just a book of
poems—it is also a book about composing a book of poems. One of my favorite
passages comments on the difficulty of ending poems: “…The danger of a / final line is
it becomes // the final line, a cage / of your own making.” (Italics Kubasta’s). Some other
“It’s the misremembered self / we seek, // …out of date, yet true.”
“Desire is a persistent othering.”
“Saying nothing is really saying ‘Come and be defenseless with me.’”
It’s interesting to note that two of these are final lines of poems, and the other is the
final line of a section of multipart poem.
Another poem, “Inside the Wood,” discusses the lining up of newly cut logs into stacks.
Here Kubasta claims that her wooden “…lines // …will not last through the winter, / or
even days, or even / the time it takes to turn around…”. One gets the sense that, if we
left her to it, the same might be true of her poems’ lines—that the poet’s compulsion to
rewrite, revise, relive, reimagine, (re-misremember?) may just make the work “tumble
over.” Luckily, in publication BlazeVox has arrested the tumble and given readers a
text that will allow perusing not just for the winter but for years to come.
Stacy Cartledge teaches creative writing and composition as an associate professor of
English at Delaware County Community College. In his poetry, mythos rubs the
margins of science, trying to find truth and hope lodged inside the quixotic. He is the
author of Within the Space Between (Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2009) and Topography (Wild
Honey Press, 2002).