Reviewed by Mary Ellen Talley
Boats for Women
by Sandra Yannone
ISBN-10: 1912561522, Paperback, 96pgs, March 27, 2019
Sandra Yannone merges intriguing memorabilia about the best known 20th Century nautical disaster with personal herstory and takes its title from the poem, “Boats for Women” as, “there is always room in the lifeboats for two more women.” In the poem, “B-Side,” she acknowledges that had she been aboard the Titanic, she likely would not have perished, calling survival, “the B-Side of disaster.”
Yannone, a faculty member at The Evergreen State College, gives testimony not only the Titanic but other nautical disasters and popular figures of the time. Her poems go deep as she connects historical details to illuminate painful intimacies between women.
“The Boy with the Top” refers to a boy who survives the famous sinking, only to die a few years later when hit by a car. Then the poem adroitly shifts from the object “top” to a positional “top” in a lesbian relationship. Yannone uses vivid imagery to convey distress, “turning back the clock,” and “searching for the switch to close the water/-tight doors, but the water keeps climbing the stairs.” Or take the sinking of the Titanic, with which she conveys sexual ardor, “I like to rush my teeth // through her hair like the Titanic’s sweet tooth / for the iceberg.”
Yannone braids themes deftly, as in “The Second Sinking of the Andrea Doria,” the word “shipwreck” refers to both a nautical tragedy and a collision of attraction:
Why did the Titanic not see the iceberg?
Why did the Stockholm kiss hard the Doria?
Why won’t she stay and look deep
into the ocean of my eyes and see
her own reflection revealed
in my two-way doubled mirror?
The second section of the book navigates decades of the poet’s life. Sexuality is discovered followed by a resonating disappointment in “1984,” “after her hand covers the doorknob like my mouth and she whispers we / can’t ever talk about this again.” In ”2004,” the speaker rubs her eyes, “until everything I see is an etched / blur.” With humbling awareness, the speaker suggests, she will, “relearn to see.”
Focusing on Bess Houdini, Harry’s assistant, in section three, Yannone performs a feminist séance trick, “I feel / alone and grope for the woman / left rusting in the drapery / like an abandoned key.”
The final section, “Other Women,” emphasizes the importance of women’s relationships. In the villanelle with this same title, the repeating line, “she splits into the hard to find” attributes and shadows of herself. Here the multiple personas of gender and personality, which Yannone’s poems grapple with, resonate in vulnerability and personal growth. The symbolic assemblage of beached wood in the last poem, “Wooden Sonnet,” gives a nod to Neruda.
Both pain and hope abound in this collection. In, “Sonnet,” Yannone writes in gorgeous circularity of desire and has the reader rooting for the woman and cheering a perfect last line:
could be any leased
day the sun elects to rise of a night you conjure
its ending. Outside the window the bricks
stay bricks, retaining the tint of pleasure
that comes with night, holding strict
to the cement that muscles them there, sly, fox
red. Now is the hour everything unlocks.
Yannone beautifully conveys being the only female teen playing hockey in “Honors Economics.” With the story of the girl not wearing a mask connoting both physical and psychological wounds, she was, “learning the business of saving, / how to stop pucks cold with my body, how to shave / the ice with my blades instead of picking with the feminine / toe.” She took the congratulations from the team, while cradling her bloody tooth with her tongue.
The poet writes warmly of her father. In the poem, “The Next Thirty Years, her father calculates the number of times he will see his daughter before he dies. Themes of history and family unite as he numbers “spoons of sugar into his mug, stirs / like a magician pouring milk” This poem seems destined for Father’s Day sharing.
The last poems in the collection speak to life on the upswing. The beloved could be partner, friend, or self in “Manifesta” as “you’ll look in the mirror with wonder / each morning, see yourself, and remember // that the beholder is in the eye of grace.”
After a salute to Neruda in “Wooden Sonnet,” referring back to the wooden door of the Titanic, Yannone finishes this collection with, “The Girl Who Catches Everything.” Shifting from twirling baton to swirling crowd, twirling in bed, and future twirling away, she writes of having all the time in the world.” Note that the pronoun has shifted from, “I” and “you” in the first poem, to “we,” “us,” and “our” in the last.
Sandra Yannone’s brave poems contribute to popular history of the time, flooding us with the arc, the ache, of family and lesbian relationships in her first full-length collection. Some poems live in heartbreak, some, in ecstatic joy. They are worthy of many rereads.
About the reviewer: Mary Ellen Talley’s poems have recently been published in Raven Chronicles, U City Review and Ekphrastic Review as well as in anthologies, All We Can Hold and Ice Cream Poems. Her poetry has received two Pushcart Nominations. She is acquainted with Sandra Yannone through Poets on the Coast.