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Book Review: Stains by Lori A. May

September 5, 2009

stainsStains with its sometimes confessional poems and its low resolution black-and-white photographs suggests a scrapbook, a collection of works and memories from different stages of a life that together tell a story of growth on many levels. Lori A. May divides this collection of early poems, a decade in the making, by type of stains, beginning with the “grass” of childhood, bitter “salt”, the surprising association of “coffee” with adolescent love and its physicality. Though unexpected, the last of these is perfect not only because coffee is an adult-associated drink legal that teenagers may legally consume but also because it can be bitter, dark, complex, and with the right additions sweet. Though alcohol does play a role in many a teenage tryst, it is good to see a different liquid associated with these acts and feelings here, particularly as it is part of portraying a woman in control of her own sexuality.

In using these varieties of stains to organize apparently autobiographical poems, May reminds us that stains are not mere surface marks but signs of what have gone into the making of a person. Wine on your collar speaks to a different set of experiences than blood on your collar. Shorter-lived stains on your lips and tongue tell us what you most recently consumed. This is also true metaphorically: what marks us makes us.

The episodic narrative created by the short poems and sections of Stains shows the development of the speaker, the I, from a childishly egocentric speaker (for children know little outside themselves) and “brat” with her “tongue / stuck out / in retaliation” to the voice of a powerful public consciousness of “blood”. She moves from rebelling against her mother to rebelling against social injustice. This is not to say that with “blood” all consciousness of the self is lost (as the final part, “sweat”, makes clear), nor should it have to be. Remember, it is subjectivity itself, the having of a self, that for too long was denied to women.

Added to this character development is the growth of the poet. We see her master the use of the concluding turn. She develops from a young poet who sometimes tells too much out of doubt in her own expressive abilities to the mature worker-in-words with the confidence to engage in the minimalisms of “smoke”. The entire text of “u.04.01”, which begins this section is

What happens
when the mice
are all
gone?

This shift corresponds with the development of worldly perspective, too, as it reflects a speaker who no longer needs to assert herself excessively, to make absolutely clear beyond clear that the “portrait” that opens the book is a “complete misrepresentation” because she has learned to have confidence in her identity.

To reveal one’s early poems takes courage, but as May states in her concluding notes, “there is value in remembering where we start out.” In Stains, where she began stylistically supports the story told by the poems.

Stains by Lori A. May. Bohemian Steel Press, 2009. 87 pp.


Readers in the Grosse Pointe, Michigan area can hear Lori A. May read at The Ambassador Poetry Project Launch Party on Friday, September 25, 2009 at 7 pm. Grosse Pointe Art Center, 16900 Kercheval.

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