On Guinevere in Baltimore by Shelley Puhak

Kate Fox

Baltimore MD: Waywiser Press, 2013, 80 pages. $16.95
(Click on cover image to purchase)

“Why Guinevere?” a reader might ask on picking up Guinevere in Baltimore, Shelley Puhak’s second full-length collection of poetry. “Why Baltimore?” Both questions are answered quickly by the poems; what better way to call into question the poetic traditions of courtly love and chivalric romance than to relocate the medieval characters of Le Morte d’Arthur to the port city of Baltimore and give them all the trappings of a middle-class existence?

All but six of the forty-eight poems in Guinevere in Baltimore are dramatic monologues, and though the main speakers are Guinevere, Sir Lancelot, and King Arthur, enough other characters are on hand to warrant a dramatis personae in the opening pages. Puhak favors the persona poem; her first book, Stalin in Aruba, and her chapbook, The Consolation of Fairy Tales, feature various historical and mythical figures—mainly female—offering alternative, often corrective, perspectives on traditional narratives.

In his foreword to Puhak’s book, Charles Simic writes, “While poets in older cultures know they are working within a tradition and de facto bear the weight of that tradition, what may be the most attractive and interesting characteristic of American poetry is that its practitioners have never been able to agree on what it is, which has freed each poet to pretty much start from scratch, treating the past as of little use when confronting the present . . . ” What is refreshing about Puhak, Simic notes, is that she doesn’t do this; instead, she “shows more curiosity about the lives of other people than she does about her own.” What Simic misses is that Puhak clearly identifies an American poetic tradition—the high modernism of the early twentieth century—the de facto tradition whose weight most contemporary American poets bear in one way or another. She then sets the poems of Guinevere in Baltimore both within and against that tradition in a daring and totally distinctive way.

The touchstone for these poems is T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, which poet Andrew Motion calls “one of the most important poems of the twentieth century.” Guinevere in Baltimore serves as an extended response to—and interrogation of—this poem, at times mimicking its approaches and techniques, at other times, questioning or undercutting its authoritative tone, especially when it comes to the Romantic ideal and its impact on women.

Though Guinevere in Baltimore shoulders several Waste Land themes—death and resurrection, courtly love, disillusionment and despair, the sterility of contemporary life—Puhak’s aim is to bring to the fore what The Waste Land takes for granted: a culture of male privilege handed down through Western culture. Using Eliot’s favorite devices—multiple voices, juxtaposition, literary allusion, figurative language—Puhak signals her intent to speak through and for women from the beginning: rather than Tiresias, her speaker is “neither Maid, Wife, nor Widow,” a phrase identified as “the seventeenth-century equivalent of (humorously) calling someone a whore.” The book itself is introduced by a quote from “The Defence of Guenevere” (1858), a Browning-era dramatic monologue by William Morris, in which Guinevere is allowed to speak in her own defense. The collection then opens with “On Having Sex, Grief-Stricken” a far more intimate portrait of despair and disillusionment than “April is the cruellest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land . . . ” Rather than equating spring with birth, Puhak begins with birth itself: a couple has just experienced a loss (a miscarriage or a stillbirth) and, leaving the hospital, their grief is palpable and concrete:

Driving home, the car clings
to the yellow line and I will it
to cross over. You pull over
for gas, but can only beat
the car with the pump handle,
over and over, metal on metal.

The poem ends with the couple stopping at a hotel: “We can’t / look at one another. / I straddle you, sobbing. / I’m stunned our bodies / can still screw / together, the threads / can catch . . .”

In this poem, the “breeding” is personal, the burial of the dead, a literal reality.

From there, the collection launches into a contemporary version of the Arthurian legend, or as Simic calls it, “a story of adultery among well-to-do Americans.” A middle-aged King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, and Sir Lancelot are transported from Camelot to Baltimore, where the Round Table nows resides in a corporate board room, with Arthur as CEO, Guinevere, his bored wife, and Lancelot, the company’s top salesman, who has recently been “pulled off the Grail” account.

References to The Waste Land abound. Four of the poems draw from Eliot’s lines: “the last fingers of leaf” in “Lancelot, After Being Caught Downloading Porn” and “The river’s tent is not broken, but bent . . . ” in “Guinevere, to All Her Unborns,” both allude to the first line of “The Fire Sermon”: “The river’s tent is broken; the last fingers of leaf / Clutch and sink into the wet bank.” “We were two but it seemed there was a third / walking the white road home . . . ” in “Arthur, Pantoum for an Empty Table” echoes “But when I look ahead up the white road / There is always another one walking beside you” from “What the Thunder Said.” Even “Madame Sosostris,” the soothsayer from “The Burial of the Dead,” makes an appearance in “Lancelot Questions the Clairvoyant.”

These “borrowings,” however, are interpreted from a radically different perspective, one that shifts the “cause” of modern-day cultural decay and spiritual bankruptcy to the very thing that Eliot puts forth as redemptive: classical myth, Biblical scripture, Arthurian legend, and the Romantic quest.

Puhak’s “waste land,” in contrast to Eliot’s, is a world of illusion, self-deception, and commodification—of box stores and infotainment—where Lancelot hopes to seduce Guinevere by producing the perfect lawn: “If I can stop the weeds, start the savings, can we still / be tender upon my fresh-mown fescue?” (“Lancelot, at the Home Depot”), and where, in “Lancelot, in the Apple Store,” one’s true love becomes interchangeable with an iPad:

      Excuse me, Knight of the Blue
Shirt and Untrimmed Beard, Knight of
Stylus and Screen, I’m seeking help
for my silvered one.

While you wait (it might be
a week or more), sample our newest apps. Do you need
to keep better tabs on her? Discern if she’s menustrating?
Weigh her waist to hip ratio?

            While I wait, I only need a quiet
spot to shed her zippered case, unhook her accessories,
recharge her fidelity.

That may prove difficult
with the older model. Have you sampled our newest,
fresh from the factory?

Throughout Guinevere in Baltimore, romantic love is an illusion, a “sell-job” deftly depicted in the book’s second poem, “An Infomercial for the Ladies-in-Waiting”:

When you find yourself on a fiscal cliff,
      Overfull of participles—going, going, gone
ashen, cashless, and tempted to trickle down;
      when you find yourself in an engagement
long-deferred, overdrawn even, with a stoop-
      shouldered duke with an ill-trimmed beard,
      . . . know this is a real medical condition
and the Troubadour is here to help.
                        . . . He’ll get
your heart rate up, spending all the coins
in your twig basket, then asking you to cover
      his rent. The nerve! The tenor
on that one! He’ll never stop, drowning out
      the memory of your mother’s voice.
He’ll sing through Law & Order reruns, immortalizing
      your soon-to-be-sagging breasts—
                        going, going, gone

In such a realm, women are commodified, as well. In “The Manor Maids Petition Their Lord,” it is a given that the maids’ household duties include servicing their master, though when adultery becomes public, as in “Jonet Gothkirk to William Murdoch” it is the woman who is ruined and punished.

As with Eliot’s speakers, the women in this collection all merge into one woman—an extremely intelligent one—and the unified voice proclaims that, rather than Eliot’s disjunction between past and present causing the world’s woes, it could well be the disjunction between men and women.

In The Waste Land, speakers hark back to a golden age, but the speakers in Guinevere in Baltimore harbor no such illusions; looking back offers no comfort, as when Lancelot asks the Oracle: “Tell me if dying is just rewinding back / to when I could carry my twelve-gauge / on the streetcar and no one blinked . . . ” and the Oracle answers “yes, yes, yes . . . ” Few would yearn for such a time—unless, to them, looking back equates with death—which Puhak may be implying.

Romantic love also provides no comfort: everyone ages, affairs prove time-consuming and superficial. Arthur develops prostate cancer and Guinevere drops Lancelot to care for him, proclaiming to her “Court Physician” that “we love with the liver . . . // Because it is many-lobed, / warm and humid,” and unlike the heart, it filters waste and can regenerate. When they meet for the last time at Arthur’s grave, Guinevere tells Lancelot, “ . . . we are never more alone / than in love.”

In fact, challenging the validity of myth, legend, and tradition—and how women are portrayed—may be the gauntlet that Puhak throws down before Eliot. Rather than a metaphorical quest for the Grail and a cure for the Fisher King’s impotence, Puhak’s quest in this collection is a quest for identity as an artist—how to establish for herself a place of authority in this—or in any—conventional narrative.

This quest is carried out through the women in Guinevere, who counter the roles ascribed to them by history and culture. The Manor Maids chide their Lord: “Recall that you were cast out / of a Garden. We grow one within. / We scrub up while its ivy twines / our cartilage.” “How stupid,” Guinevere chides herself, “to think I was anything / but vassal to and vessel for / the rain . . . If water seeks its / own level and God cares so little / as to leave me pooled / at your feet, I’ll head home, not to ashes to ashes but down to / the liquid in which we’re conceived” (“Guinevere Writes to Lancelot from the Vacation Home in Sirmione”).

Lady Elaine, upon encountering Guinevere at an “employee picnic,” confesses she, too, has slept with Lancelot:

            “ . . . and he couldn’t tell
                  the two of us apart.
What man can? He couldn’t even
figure out the condom. It was all
wham! bam! baby! I was like
you call that neurobiology’s reward?
Still, I’ll take mother of over mirror of
any old day. I’ll take another deviled egg.”

In Puhak’s poems, women are “the river,” “the rain,” the branch that bends rather than breaks, the opposite of dust, the source of life, the ones who would rather be mothers than muses, the ones for whom the death of a child is as significant as any war casualty, the ones who literally bear love’s true—and sometimes cruel—intent.

As if to underscore this theme, Guinevere explains in “Guinevere, to All Her Unborns,” one of the last poems in the collection: “I carry the gene that makes one susceptible to rain . . . // The dolorous stroke is wrenching out / a rib to make another. / And the wound that won’t heal: women. / The story they keep telling: // that I am waiting to be sought.” She ends the poem by telling her unborn children: “They say the moon borrows its brilliance, / offers no light of its own. / They say my river / runs soft, runs softly. Keep clinging to its bank, / my sweets. When I make my own map / of the world, I’ll sketch this shore, your pebbled / forms, in ochre and animal blood.”

Such an ending, especially in light of recent findings that women most likely painted the majority of ancient cave drawings in Lascaux and Altamira, shows Puhak has reached the end of her quest. “They” will no longer assign roles or define limits for women; women can be artists as well as muses (as can men); and a womb does not preclude other forms of creation. Puhak, in making her own map of the world, echoes Elizabeth Bishop: “More delicate than the historians’ are the map-makers’ colors” (“The Map”). In asserting imagination over tradition and history, her own point of view over commonly held cultural beliefs, Puhak, like Bishop, has found her place and staked her poetic claim.

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