New poetry from Elliott (Shattering Porcelain Images, 2014, etc.) tells the story of Bernie Bjørn in multiple voices.
Readers learn about Bernie—her swallowed grief at having given up a first baby to adoption when she was a teenager, her fallout with her cold mother, her desire to give her daughter, Anna, a sibling, her untethered attraction to sex and men, her brilliance—in a series of 50 monologues. The characters include Leland Eckroth, who courts her mother and whom Bernie propositions; the boys she grew up with, now adults who might be lovers, might be helpers; Jack, her husband, who leaves his young wife perilously alone; girlfriends; a lawyer; and so on. The neighbors say that when Bernie moved in next door, she “livened up our gossip / lightened up our lives / she was all beat and boogie / full of hope love and curiosity.” Bernie has a direct, passionate influence on others: “Nights the naked sounds of her lovemaking / drove us back into each other’s arms.” Auburn-haired and thin, she’s nearly magical: “Some creature stepped out of a / Botticelli painting.” “Song Twenty-five—Pimp” makes clear her fierce singularity: “That’s when I knew / Bernie wasn’t anybody’s wife.” She’s fragile, too, enough to be institutionalized. One love interest counsels her: “Everyone who is in pain / who is lonesome and lost / is in a hurry / I told her / you must be patient.” Although the dramatic heroine doesn’t get a song of her own (unless it’s “Song Forty-four—Alter ego”), even a particle in the atmosphere gets a voice in this remarkable book. A riveting poem titled “Dustmote” makes a wild, weird interruption into the human voices to record Bernie leaving her husband: “I dust mote on her body powdered / felt the bloom scrubbed into her skin / heard her words why don’t you get a job / I’m going back to school // I dust mote dancing / heard the door behind it echo / last time last time / last time.”
These songs of the ardent title character sing like wildfire; readers should be singed and ravished by her burning.