Spring/Summer 1993, Volume 10.2
Reviewed by Susan Smith Nash, Writer, Norman, Oklahoma
Imagination Comes to Breakfast: Poems by Kathy Evans. Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1992, 60 pp., $9.95 (paper).
In Kathy Evans's graceful and intimate collection of poems, Imagination Comes to Breakfast, the American West becomes the place where one can understand transformations of language and the self.
In "Traveling," Evans describes "driving a white van through Nevada," where she and her family observe the "desolate splendor" of the desert. As she "thinks back to last night's drive," the desert becomes a symbol of extremes; it is the penultimate example of the barrenness nature can achieve. This poem illustrates Henry Nash Smith's premise in the classic work, Virgin Land: the American West as Symbol and Myth (1950), that the American West functions in Americans who perceived limits to their dreams. However, Evans's West is no virgin land. As she contemplates the Nevada desert in "Traveling," she does not convert it into Edenic paradise. Instead, she likens the alkaline valley to "a plain of cooled white ash after annihilation," and suggests that Nevada "is what it will look like at the end of the world." Thus, Nevada becomes a symbol of apocalypse rather than of an eternal garden.
Evans does not lose sight of the boundary between the literal and figurative. Consequently, she maintains a consciousness of self, and of her own interpretive processes. In this respect, Evans shares an aesthetic stance with poets such as Edward Dorn whose poetry seems at first glance to be part of a realistic or naturalistic tradition, but later reveals itself to be subtly surreal. Like Dorn, Evans does not merely represent nature or the mythic American West, but she calls into question the ways that art has traditionally represented them. Then, with subtle irony she looks at both the myth and traditional methods of perpetuating it.
Irony is evident in "All Hallow's Eve," which plays on Gothic or horror genres, beginning as it does with "skeletons swing[ing] from their nails," a "small witch," and "Frankenstein." Of course the title of the poems is a dead giveaway that the poem itself is about the aftermath of a masquerade. So Evans has created a Halloween "trompe l'oeil" which provokes the same issues as the surreal art of Rene Magritte. Evans suggests that myth, symbol, and fairy tale contain deliberate artistmade masks, and that when "Little Red Riding Hood steps through the door," she may at any time "drop/ her cape, and leave it puddled on the floor."
When Little Red Riding Hood drops her cape, ontological issues are forced to the surface. What is the nature of reality within the poem? Is it the mask or what lies underneath? In "Knocking," Evans suggests that no one's interpretation of reality suffices-even as "Jehovah Witnesses are at the door again" to "ask about Armageddon," Evans cannot believe in their story or myths. "I have my own apocalypse," she responds, denying the possibility that there are any absolutes in the world of phenomena.
And yet, for Evans, the uncertainties that surround identity are not a negative thing. Instead, the poem may resemble an abstract modernist painting in a manner detailed by critics Charles Altieri, Barret Watten, John Keeling, and others, to describe what occurs in the poetry of such postmodernist poets as Frank OHara, Robert Creeley, and John Ashbery. In these critics' view, the poem is analogous to an abstract painting. Because it is abstract, the painting or poem forces the viewer to interpret the nonrepresentational patterns, lines, colors, and images, and impose meaning. Inevitably, the poem becomes, at least on one level, a mirror where one may discover oneself. "Pigments" is possibly Evans's most beautiful expression of how art can simultaneously function as a "painterly surface" of self-discovery and a "symbol-making process" where language subverts old paradigms and suggests new, transformative ones. The artist paints, and the poet explores the boundaries of experience: "If my daughter can paint a paper fish/ this gold and blue/ with one white eye and a purple gill,/ then I can enter the rain from inside." Almost anything is possible: "if light is diligent enough,/ then I can bring home in my hands/ wood berries to match your eyes."
In "Dusk Covenants," the connection between poem, painterly surface, and identity is clear. The poem itself becomes a painterly reflection of self. The fact that in this poem, reflections seem more real than the object itself arouses questions about how one sees reality. Even "the trees inquire/ into the nature of color." The poem may restore identity by constructing a representation of self, and in the "streetlights / I seem beautiful again." However, the poem cart also cause one to lose one's self, as "each window I pass/ asks to keep my reflection."
Although Evans is willing to address the dark underside of identity and myth, she is more concerned with examining how art transforms and even questions reality. As a result, the poems in Imagination Comes to Breakfast are multi-faceted and subtle, and reading them is a rewarding experience.