Juliana Gray’s Roleplay is the winner of this year’s Eugene Paul Nassar Poetry Prize for the best poetry book by an Upstate New York author. The book is an exemplar of great wit that is subtly tailored to our post-modern consciousness. The secret life of Roleplay is the way we see different sides of the author’s persona through the prism of light created by the poems. For example, one of this book’s highlights is “Nancy Drew, 45, Posts on Match.com” (for which, with “The Birds” and “Three Scenes,” she won the 2010 Bea Gonzalez prize for poetry), which is a poem posing as a wistful online dating advertisement for the now aged, but former intrepid teenage detective:
if life is like a dark and winding stair
you follow as your lover carries the flashlight.
Turn-ons: lightning, crosswords, antique clocks…
Turn-offs: liars, secrets, drugs/disease,
men with ponytails, the “b-word,” guns.
* * *
My life is a broken locket. Do you hold
the other half? Let’s investigate.
To be sure all poets play roles within their poems, but few have the talent to make them feel so personal while still holding the reader at arm’s length so one can appreciate by the genius of her art. At times, the results can be surprisingly moving.
Gray’s deft use of poetic form (especially the sonnet in classic rhymed iambic pentameter) in conjunction with cultural artifacts puts her among the forefront of contemporary poets who explore the uneasy relationship between the cosmetic veneers and psychological chasms of modern life. The sequence of poems based upon the films of Alfred Hitchcock gives her the opportunity to eviscerate our fetishistic fascination with sex and death, which is, as Hitch saw clearly, uncomfortably compelling and horrifyingly repellant at the same time. She makes this particularly poignant in “Frenzy,” where the subject matter of the film recalls the brutal rape and murder of a classmate.
In a similar manner Gray sublimates her personal life using a subtext of cultural themes, as she does by bathing her immediate family in the refracted light of surrealistic abstractions (e.g., “Portrait of My Mother as the Rush Hour Traffic Report” and “Portrait of My Sister as a Marble Ashtray“), where realism could not embody the complexity of feelings about these relationships. She also offers us faceted views on the post-mortem of her own marriage, using, in one instance, Hitchcock’s “The Birds” as a means to describe the suppressed dread of lovers when winged love goes wrong; or in another instance, ironically referencing the zombie apocalypse of The Walking Dead and Wold War Z, as she does in the arch “Love Among the Zombies,” where seduction of a lover includes a description of the disposal of a zombie husband’s corpse:
your hatchet gleamed, and blood like warm champagne
splashed across my face. You wiped my lips,
then helped me burn the body with propane.
This poem comes from the final section of Roleplay, entitled “Against Type,” in which other poems like “Cuttings” and “Suicides” present complex statements on the female artist in modern society, where femininity becomes the sacrificial lamb of the public consciousness. I heard Stephen Dunn say that he often reads the last poems of a collection before anything else, because those works usually mean the most to the poet. In the final sequence of poems, Gray points the way to her future work.
There are other earthly and unearthly delights in Roleplay that are sure to satisfy the reader who likes wit in poetry like a well-made martini: extremely dry and capable of inducing a good buzz. I highly recommend this book.
This review has been revised since its initial posting.