A review of Dismantled Secrets by Maxianne Berger
Published on April 1, 2008
Wolsak & Wynn
Maxianne Berger is proficient in a number of forms: the haiku, the pantoum, the sonnet, and Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse. She even writes a “paradelle,” the hoax-form invented by the American poet Billy Collins to make fun of strict forms like the villanelle. (Of course, it caught on.) Berger uses it as well as anyone else in her “Bad News Paradelle.” In the first three sections of Dismantled Secrets
, Berger uses her elegant forms to look at some brutal facts: cancer, palliative care, death, violence. The poem that gives her book its title advises that painful secrets can be told through “schemes and tropes” that no one will believe. But the paradox of art is that these poems are believable, without being confessional. To use one of her own metaphors, Berger knows how to read “the dictionary of grief.” “After Midnight, Intensive Care Ward” describes a man listening to his dying father’s chest for a heartbeat. The silences between the beats grow longer, until he hears only the sound of the pacemaker. This brief poem, made from the simplest words, combines delicacy and emotional power. Berger can also write about terror: a girl’s face slashed repeatedly by a jealous lover, or a daughter helping her mother bury a molesting father.
Where the book runs into difficulties is in the last two sections. Berger is both a serious and a light-verse poet, and it seems a misstep to follow 50 pages abounding with tragedy and horror with some 40 pages of comedy. The later poems turn to subjects like the jargon of postmodernism and self-help, or the inanities of articles on “The Beautiful Homes of the Horsey Set,” a satire on television programs like Celebrity Pets or Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Some of the satire is very good, some of it laboured-how disappointing it is to find that “Excerpts from the Blog of J. Alfred Prufrock” goes on too long and is not very funny. The updated version of Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess” as “My Ex-Wife” is much better, turning Browning’s story of pride and murder into a tabloid divorce story. One of Berger’s funniest poems is “The Carnal Interlude.” She plays off Iago’s reference to the sex act as making the “beast with two backs” by suggesting that the carnal interlude is an eight-legged arachnid with two heads. So much for afternoon delight, so much for the nooner. Berger’s muse must be a goddess with two heads, one for serious poetry, one for light verse. Dismantled Secrets is a good book, but it should be approached as two works, to be read at different times. mRb
Bert Almon lives in Edmonton, Alberta. Retired from teaching, he follows the careers of his former students.