Wednesday, May 20, 2009



Tinderbox Lawn by Carol Guess
(Rose Metal Press, Brookline, MA, 2008)

Carol Guess turns insides out, and her new poetry collection, Tinderbox Lawn, exposing the raw interior of a West Coast cityscape in uncertain times and memorializing the women who navigate it, is no exception. Guess—poet (Femme’s Dictionary, Love is a Map I Must Not Set on Fire), novelist (Seeing Dell, Switch) and memoirist (Gaslight)—weaves romantic love and social criticism so lyrically that readers sense she is the archeologist of love and loss, handling like tiny bones the absurd injustices of our time, and unearthing the ways these stains propel us—to love, perhaps, or to ruin love.

In Tinderbox Lawn Guess follows American lives lived on the edge and captures moments when things reveal themselves and life itself culminates in a series of ephemeral details: the hair coming out of our barrettes, for instance.
In Guess’s poetry, words re-tell themselves (back-pocket panties are a “backhanded compliment,” doves release from “the crook of a crooked smile”), and things do what they cannot do (an abandoned house “bleeds radio,” a red light “sweats and uncrooks its elbow,” “an umbrella marries spokes from a hybrid bike”). The richly haunting effect is a world in which contours are redefined. Here, the body is everywhere: tall buildings become people, “stars pretend to be oil on water,” and “the oil refinery pretends to be stars.”

You’ll imagine the author stopped, stooped at a street corner amidst an oblivious city—somehow rubbing two streets together like rocks to produce alienation (“The corner of Prospect and Holly is empty, save for the people tall buildings become”), disappointment (“Her house faces Prospect but the address is Elm”), and terror (“You’re at the corner of Commercial and Champion when the call comes in and you turn on the siren”).

This is the uncanny—something familiar (“You’re in the living room. You’re in the living room, and I’m just no good”), something strange (“At the center of the room you drop the dead thing”). Guess covers the range of things we try to keep at arm’s length: guns, girl-killers, Empire, loveless lovers, and the irrepressible memories of our smaller selves, all the while understanding “Something beautiful gleams through the fault line.” Amidst chaos, violence, and the steady churning of incessant machines, women swell—with love, lack of love, longing, rage—like this: “Your bee-sting pout”; “My bee-sting allergy.”

On the one hand, you want her to love you like this (“the dog lay dreaming, and you were mine again”), see you like this (“You’re riding a mechanical bull. I mean—you’re beautiful”), and on the other, you are humbled by what she’ll see in the likeness between a lover and her mother (“the way you shook hands like strangers to love”). The collection rides this tension to the end, bringing solace to those who “hear the voice of the girl in the box, the voice everyone else mistakes for spring” and camaraderie to those who will be grateful “Somebody’s telling the truth in your city.”


Kathryn K. Stevenson earned her doctorate in English from the University of California, Riverside, where she teaches writing classes. She is obssessed with, and writes academic essays about, "adherence," or the bonds forged between peoples under duress--a theme that appears, magnified, in her fiction, non-fiction, and songs, which can be found at


  1. Another view is offered by Kristina Marie Darling in GR #15 at