|The Wild Woman: Kathleen Lawless Cox, "Citizen of the Earth"|
|News/Features - Literature|
|Wednesday, 22 November 2006 02:49|
Kathleen Lawless Cox's novel Maeve was written over 29 years. Her new book, the poetry collection Citizen of the Earth, has been four decades in the making.
The 68-year-old author - born in England, raised in Ireland, a U.S. resident since 1961, and a Quad Cities citizen for the bulk of the past 45 years - is matter-of-fact about the book's creation.
"I had approximately 40 years' worth of poetry sitting around," she said this week, "and I decided I would like to do a book that covered those 40 years but with the best poems that I could muster out of the pile."
Citizen of the Earth, she said, coincides with her two-year tenure as the Quad Cities' Poet Laureate. "I felt I should show my work," she said.
Lawless Cox's blitheness about her book masks the hot blood that courses through her work - a relentless energy that makes it challenging and exciting - as well as the seemingly contradictory balance brought by discipline and brevity; her poems are characterized by both passion and precision.
The poet uses vibrant, evocative, but grounded language that enlivens even trite subjects. In "The Mother's Song," Lawless Cox invokes the agony and ecstasy of childbirth and extends the metaphor to motherhood overall. Most impressively, she pulls it off in 57 words: "My body was the boat / that carried you as you grew / Muscle and sinew and bone / A mind of your own / My legs became the oars / That sundered the stormy seas / And I sang at the height of my pain / My joy as we were borne / Lofty to the tender shore / My joy! A boy! A boy!"
There is something wild about Lawless Cox that might have been evident even at a young age. After moving back to London in her early teens, she said, she decided that she wanted to approach writing seriously.
"I'd seen an advertisement in a magazine about this famous writers' school where you send them in a sample of your writing and they decide whether you'll make a great writer or not," she said. (Yes, Lawless Cox acknowledged, it's a scam, no different from the television ads nowadays inviting you to take an art test and have it evaluated.) She submitted a sample and was invited to a meeting. "A very nice man said, ‘Yes, you're a good writer.'" she recalled. "He said. ‘It's going to cost money, you know.' ... It was too much. I didn't have it. He said, ‘You go home and just keep on writing.' So that's what I did."
It might have been about the money. Or it could have been that the man had an inkling that to try to tame Lawless Cox's talent - to make it conform to convention - would be to neuter it.
That was the message she got about her visual artwork from two separate sources: St. Ambrose University's Les Bell and Bruce Carter, who at the time was teaching at Marycrest. "They both told me to stay away from academia," Lawless Cox said. She recalled that Bell told her, "They'll destroy you."
It's not that she was fragile, she said. "I would do things I didn't know you weren't supposed to do, and they would be successful," she said. "And he felt I would lose my spontaneity ... if I went to school. They'd drill it out of me."
Although Lawless Cox spent two quarters at Augustana and attended Black Hawk College part-time for four years, that doesn't translate into a lack of finesse. Both her artwork and her poems, though earthy and raw, are dense and elegant.
"I'm confident enough in myself that I'm able to take risks, and I can tell if it's working or if it's not working - for me," Lawless Cox said. "It has to work for me first. If it doesn't work for me, it's not going to work for other people. ... I'm the first judge of my material ... . And if I like it, then it's a gift. It's a gift to me."
Citizen of the Earth is slim - 46 poems (mostly selected by Roald Tweet) and 10 drawings spread over fewer than 200 pages - but like a gourmet meal, it is best savored, with small bites.
There is certainly playfulness within it. With the gassy exploits of "A Toad for the Millennium" and the refrain of "The Third Villanelle" - "I'm the woman who killed Big Bird!" - Lawless Cox injects welcome lightness. And "‘Comfort Me with Apples; for I am Sick... (with) Love!'" is compellingly carnal: "I will polish you / with my tongue."
But as the author said: "I think I'm very strong at describing pain."
With a mere six lines of text, "In Banda Aceh" concisely expresses disgust, anger, awe, and condescension: "The waves came / God's devastating tantrum / Thrashed the toys / It had tired of / *** / Lacking a human heart / God can't bear imperfection!"
"Now Weep Little Ones" is direct in invoking suicide, but it is neither a scream of agony nor a sugar-coated remembrance: "back at the hospital when we heard the news / we were kinder to each other for awhile."
Although broken up into 10 sections, the book has no obvious structure, Lawless Cox said. She wanted an opening poem, "starting with the children, and drawing them to me, and saying, I'm not dancing now, figuratively, as I did when I was a child, but my words are dancing: ‘These are my dances / These, my dreams / This is my salt / which is for all of you / and for the fishes.'"
The sections establish a rhythm, Lawless Cox said. "I decided to break it up because a lot of my poetry is very dense," she said. "Most of the really dense poetry is painful, and I am considerate of the readers. I don't want them to be in a hole, trying to crawl up."
But those depictions of pain have connected with many listeners and readers. Lawless Cox recalled performing a particularly painful poem at a bookstore in Minneapolis: "Just as I ended the poem, this woman rushed out of the audience, right up to me, and she hung on to me, and she was crying. And she said, ‘You've written my poem. You've written my poem. That's my life!'"
And then humility creeps in, dryly: "Maybe she was a particularly weepy person. I don't know."
Kathleen Lawless Cox's Citizen of the Earth is available at Quad City Arts, Mother Jones Café, and Amazon.com.
Lawless Cox has several upcoming poetry readings: February 3, 2 p.m., Moline Public Library; February 10, 10 a.m., Books & More (Muscatine); March 2, 7 p.m., Quad City Arts; and April 1, 10 a.m., Davenport Unitarian Church.
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