"Bitting proves herself a sister poet to Anne Sexton, Sharon Olds and Sheryl St. Germain."– Kirkus Reviews
In her third book-length collection, Bitting (Notes to the Beloved, 2012, etc.) converses with fellow poets, both classic and contemporary.
If Louis C.K. is a comic’s comic, and Benoît Violier was a chef’s chef, readers might think of Bitting as a poet’s poet. While she displays her wares for all to see—and admire—there is a level of excellence in her verse that should provide numerous pleasures for the connoisseur. In her new collection, she is often in conversation with poets, including Dante Alighieri, Wendell Berry, James Merrill, and Frank O’Hara. “Immanent, Purgatorio” is subtitled “(with Dante Alighieri),” and the poem—like the Italian master’s Divine Comedy—reflects on the afterlife as both reality and metaphor: “the world being a jagged heaven my soles learn / to tread more tenderly. My head of red clouds / and wounded distortions: bells and satanic flutes heard / at hyper-pitch by the flea-bitten crowd.” Yet “Immanent” doesn’t merely recall Divine Comedy; written in terza rima—the very difficult verse form that Dante made famous—Bitting’s piece could be a canto in the Purgatorio. By contrast, “Thoughts Jotted in a Vicodin Haze on a Line by Wendell Berry” features a more confrontational reworking of the famous farmer-poet’s work. In Berry’s “The Peace of Wild Things,” the author imagines that untamed nature might be a succor “when despair for the world grows.” Feeling the gnaw of the same despair, Bitting turns instead to “a pill in my dresser / wrapped in layers of Chinese silk / [that] I down / with a swig of pink lemonade / On an empty stomach / it’s pure.” That Bitting replaces Berry’s peace of wild things with pharmaceuticals is either playful or totally provocative, but in either case, the poem is a worthy, inventive homage to the elder writer. Near the heart of her book, the author gives readers in “When the Sky Makes a Certain Sign” one of those lines that might sneak into her obituary decades in the future: “Every poem’s a love poem.” And in every one of Bitting’s diamond-sharp verses, there is something to love. Readers should count themselves lucky if this sublime volume falls into their laps.
With this poetry collection, the author firmly establishes herself as a powerful contemporary voice in American letters.
Bitting (Good Friday Kiss, 2008, etc.) returns with earthy, adventurous and existential free verse.
Bitting is the rare poet who clearly understands that sublimity is never more than one overwrought image away from absurdity. Though clearly capable of the sublime, she is careful to counterbalance the sacred with the profane and the transcendent with the commonplace in crafting what is, on the whole, a forcefully well-proportioned collection. In “Mammary,” for instance, narrator and reader are transported by a chain of associations from the highway sights outside the narrator’s car to visions of her friend’s body as she undergoes a mastectomy. What begins as psychological free association grows increasingly mystical (and worshipful) as the narrator evokes Promethean suffering—"I imagine birds and flight / as the elliptical sweep of sharpness / cuts the pale sky of your chest, / steel beaks of surgical tools / carving out the flesh cream, / making smoke of tumor meat”—before resurrecting her friend’s breasts as “two blond angels, / flying out / beyond the moon’s milky scar” to “spread their innocence." As counterweight to such moments of profound pathos, Bitting demystifies some of life’s most hallowed experiences, such as in “Birth,” a darkly humorous portrayal of childbirth as a telescoping series of indignities in which a Demerol-injected mother on “a Jimi Hendrix acid trip” greets her “baby’s head galumphing / through the ravaged pit” with “a sphincter blast of feces.” Between these extremes, this collection covers a lot of ground—music, death, sex, family, autism, suicide, aging, food—but it always does so from the perspective of a thoroughly embodied narrator. There is a comfortable, even epicurean, egocentrism to Bitting’s narrators that insists on the primacy of the sensual. In this way, and in the way her narrators respond to mortality by burrowing even further into their own skins, Bitting proves herself a sister poet to Anne Sexton, Sharon Olds and Sheryl St. Germain. Yet even with her range, lighter poems like “His Hat,” a comic come-on to Johnny Depp, sometimes feel like filler.
Not a perfect collection—but it comes close.