January 21st, 2009

Rose-coloured Reviews *Unisex Love Poems* by Angela Szczepaniak

The plucky heroine of Angela Szczepaniak’s dizzying novel in poems is referred to as a “gingerpear confection” as she dangles suspended on a tightrope and “encounters the world inverted.” The expression is an apt description of the whole collection: sharp and sweet and worth savouring, though hard to read slowly.

I was scared to read this book. A wonderful front cover illlustration by Jeff Szuc did not sufficiently distract me from the jacket copy, which promises “[a]n autopsy of language,” terrifying to those of us who didn’t know language was dead and didn’t even send a bundt cake.

The wonderful lightness and elegance of Szczepaniak’s work might be better likened to surgery than autopsy–at times gory, at times clinical, but all with the goal (in my opinion) of ressucitation. Yes, these poems work with language as an object, dead if you like, a thing with physical properties like a serif or a ligature in print, a stammer or an accent when voiced. And at *the same time* these poems play with words to tell a decidedly alive and lively set of stories, about a lonely guy named slug who breaks out in a horrible rash and sets about investigating his apartment building to find the cause. In his search, he meets Butterfingers, a lonely girl with a history of sad relationships and a stammer.

That slug’s rash is made up of h’s, in several fonts, and that Butterfingers’s stammer stands in for punctuation and gradually begins to confuse meanings, is just part of the magic and tragedy of these characters. The linguistic high-wire act goes on right above the emotional lives of the characters.

As you might have gathered, a book that gets it’s initial plot push from a rash is not a buoyant one. While terribly funny, and I think ultimately quite romantic, *Unisex Love Poems* takes a grim view of the rites of love. There are two competing advice tomes running through the book, one for “Nice girls” who seek to avoid getting groped and secure matrimony, and one for their paramours, who seek to turn “your pretty poppy into a spirited spark plug.” Both use the same peppy euphemistic language and even similar flower metaphors, and both use metaphors of trapping the opposite sex into doing your desires.

Also on the advice front are some remarkable recipes for preparing the various internal organs (and two for tongue!) Nothing will make you rethink the common metaphor like a recipe for for “Stuffed Coeur” that advises one to “trim visible fat and functions” and that “the industrious and devoted honeydrop will use strands of her own hair to sew cavities.”

The recipes and accompanying diagrams gave me a tough time, as much as I was enjoying the jokes. And I was so sad for poor slug, whose wife is after his accent in his divorce case and who seeks companionship in a spider behind his fridge. But I was cheered up by slug’s lawyers, spitz and spatz, fairies because they are three and a half inches tall…or because of their “companionable” as well as legal relationship.

Also, typographic cartoons! Also, slug’s fieldnotes on all the living things he finds in his apartment. This book is less than 200 pages long, but it’s full to bursting. It’s best to be honest and admit that I’m *sure* I missed things too subtle and complex to be gotten in a quick and devouring read. But I’m quite happy to reread sometime soon.

About halfway through reading *Unisex Love Poems, I dropped the book in a dish of ice-cream while sitting in a cafe. As I began to clean it off with the only implement available, my tongue, it did occur to me that it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a better book to lick.

I was lost but I was kind

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