Diadem Me by Bethany Carlson

Reviewed by Becky Varley–Winter


Bethany Carlson‘s Diadem Me is published beautifully by MIEL press: the cover is an image of bright beads, scattered flowers and petals on white, like a bride’s dressing table, and the poems are divided into sections: Stature, Posture, Gesture, Pose and Repose. The title is theatrical, queeny: a sparkly crown of stuck-together words, glinting.

By ‘stuck-together’ I mean that these poems are full of unusual juxtapositions which sometimes work and sometimes don’t, at least not right away: for me, they gain strength as they go on. The opening poem, ‘Valediction for the Lake of Small Silence’, has idiosyncratic flourishes: ‘trees exchange / glass teeth and shades of Red’. Describing sunlit leaves as ‘glass teeth’ is interesting, as is the capitalisation of ‘Red’, but the overall impact of the poem feels slightly forced. Seasons ‘accumulate like souvenirs’: it’s like a glowing glass bubble, reflections on the water becoming cinematic. The word ‘How’ tries hard to persuade me, telling me ‘How this lake Collects hearts’, ‘How’ the trees ‘are saying Open‘: these ‘how’s could be cut, to present the effect with less framing. However, I’m interested to leaf onwards.

Striking lines: ‘I felt nothing afterward, / while the skeleton sharpened again inside of you’. A skeleton ‘sharpening’ inside a person is subtly unnerving. ‘Like an angel, I am prone to headaches’ is funny (I can imagine an angel reaching for asprin), and ‘I once was a girl like you’ is quite touching.

Carlson’s style often approaches synesthesia: in ‘To haunt is to occupy blank spaces’ touch transmits sound and magnifies sight:

When you touched me, your hands became dial tone,
your hands

a telescope   on my bright neck.

The final lines of ‘First thunderstorm of spring’ sound like a jaded drag queen or cabaret star, hungover:

                         press slabs of ice to my miracle

temples – wait for the little white lies
to glisten down.

The title poem, ‘Diadem Me’, is like a series of Instagram photos, brightly coloured:

            just for the maw of it, let’s make a scepter of these shards
of terra cotta, of gingham. I said, Marketability has never tasted so
gorgeous. I said,

Consider the lake thistle – have you seen how fast/tall these things grow?

I struggle to articulate what Carlson is ‘saying’ but really like the surprise of that last line, growing suddenly away from the rest. As the poems continue, I think she may be doing something with dressing-up, ‘Marketability’ and self-image: her work is full of fashion, dresses, bits of fabric.

‘In the senile desert, the wolves eat scarves while the wolfs eat scarfs’. This title is a surreal story-unto-itself, and the poem plays with flowing rhythm, repetition and distraction:

forget the moon pale remnant underfoot
forget the diminished the hungry the blue
forget forget forget the angry
bouquets of wildflowers,

it ends with ‘I only meant to make things sweeter not better’, which could be an artist’s manifesto of sorts, being interested in sweetness without quite wanting to sugar-coat everything. In ‘Vis-à-vis’, glossy pink babies are collected, put in wire baskets, and soaked in maple syrup, creating a kind of disturbing / funny dream-kitsch: kittens also crop up later in the collection.

‘Dearborn’ frustrates me with my own inability to get to the heart of it: ‘last season’s coral-colored lips’ versus the ‘moon leaking through each cocktail hour’. Neon splashes float on the surface of a whiter wash. In ‘After an argument, …’, ‘Anger’ is allowed to show, a ‘quiet burn.’

‘On the anniversary of my adoption, I dream of my parents’ divorce’: this title is more explicit and pointed than the actual poem, a bouquet of dream-images.

‘Playacting’ is fluid and fluent:

‘Every afternoon I drove to the bay in a different colored
leotard and folded myself into the sea, which was always hungry
for me or the near shape of me. The water was fraught with the
faces of wandering saints. This created a sense of longing, mostly.

The speaker ‘grew geraniums in glass beakers’, ‘bought local’, ‘lived in a vista’, but ‘Often I felt ragged’. It’s sad.

‘The sky’s apprentice’ seems to be trying to keep up epiphanies: ‘Here hangs the same old Sky, bunched from years of use’. Luxurious melancholy: ‘I sat in the sauna grieving the faces we / could no longer save.’

In ‘Winterizing the house’, the grieving speaker cries ‘Sweaters! / Throw me sweaters!‘ as if this inoculates pain, while in ‘Je sais bien mais quand même’ there are tree-cosies:

             I stitch a covering for each tree
in the orchard, steep the damp
from trunks until first frost
is only a splinter in the distance.

There’s something quietly desperate about trying to cover trees against the cold. In (deep breath) ‘Tailights of the fringe of this gown each ghost in this house is wearing have all set to blinking’, it’s as if Tinker Bell is writing a dirge. People are seen ‘photographing the dogwood / in full blossom with their smartphones. […] This is my context and it hurts’.

The pamphlet ends in a tender account of feeding the birds in ‘Color Theory’: ‘treasure of gray gulls their star-shaped mouths / the beloved beveled water kissed and kissed.’ Carlson’s work is so thoroughly jewelled that I sometimes wish she’d strip it down for a few beats – be bald and unbeautiful – but there’s a lot to catch the eye here, and something moving through it.