BY JOANNA C. VALENTE
It's hard not to fall in love with a collection of poetry that starts with the line: "Nancy meets her robot." Instantly, the reader is hooked, or rather, grabbed by the throat & propelled into each new line with a ferocious curiosity. The relationship between the two characters, Nancy & Ned, is immediately introduced in "Chapter 1," as voyeuristic and somewhat distant.
Gordon separates her chapbook Keen (Horseless Press, 2014) into two sections--Part One: Robot and Part Two: Wooden Lady. Each poem is titled either as a chapter (as in part one) or as an article (as in part two), which automatically sets the collection up as a narrative story, sewn together through pieces and fragments. The reader never gets the full story, but enough to create an atmosphere that is easily relatable. In many ways, the details are irrelevant as our overall human experiences connect us together, especially when that humanity is being taken away from us.
There are many reoccurring images and symbols throughout the collection, as if they were repeated dreams; the collection is dreamlike in how each poem centers around a particular moment, in the everyday surreal. In "Chapter 3," the idea of "investigating" body parts is introduced, which is significant as body parts become a reoccurring image through the collection, as though they exist in bizarre nightmares; in addition, the idea that Nancy & Ned are investigating their own body parts suggests a clinical, almost strangely scientific role. It's as if they don't truly understand what being human means.
In "Chapter 14," this fluidity and need to understand bodies creeps up again with the piling on of different objects: "The dig is a pit of first of earth of gold of teeth of bones of children of women of" ; then, in "Chapter 16," Gordon uses the human body again to question what humanity is, particularly in the context of a god: "A portrait of a woman / whose face is a thousand dollars / whose face is poison / gold, god, gold." In this case, the speaker is focusing on womanhood as both a symbol of beauty and the grotesque, as both godlike and monster, in our society.
Of course, right when the reader becomes comfortable, Gordon changes direction with Part Two: Wooden Lady; the reader's focus is now on Nancy's mother's will. It is a decisive, poignant move: instead of focusing on Nancy's relationship with Ned, it is now centered around her mother, who occasionally popped up in Part One. Instead of maneuvering delicately, Gordon goes for the jugular, because that is exactly what poetry should do: "Your mother has the right to hurt you. Should, too," (Article 1). The speaker chronicles Nancy's feelings of insecurity and inadequacy in comparison to her mother: "I am not enough," (Article 2). Again, in "Article 5," the reader cringes before the first line is over: "To my daughter I bequeath nothing." If you've ever felt isolated and insecure, you will believe this chapbook was written about you. It might have been.
The roles humans take within a family is the one of the most complex structures in any given society, being that the roles fluidly change from daughter to caregiver to parent to father to nanny, as emphasized by the text. Is there more humanity in certain roles--is there room for both villain and hero, master and servant, god and mortal? These are all questions Gordon raises; you decide the answer.