In songwriting, a verse can be described as either stable or unstable. A stable verse feels finished, complete. An unstable verse is missing something: it leaves the listener waiting for something, still processing what’s been heard. Songwriter Pat Pattison says, “Motion creates emotion. And on more than one level. The way you make something move, the motion you create, in and of itself creates emotion. It makes you feel like you’re moving or stopping. It makes you feel stable or unstable. And it connects concepts.” Mary Biddinger’s third full-length collection is a lyric journey of instability. The motion of her lines—erratically drawing connections between disparate images—creates feverish emotions that stop just short of distress.
But A Sunny Place with Adequate Water adds balance to ellipsis. The disjointed images are contained within formal verses: couplets, tercets, quatrains. These are poems that appear balanced on the page and are spoken from a calm, almost sage-like voice. Take this example from “Some Discipline”:
And there I was, cradling my Cornish game hen
two weeks into a sentence of five. Nobody wanted a kiss
as much as a book of matches or a sturdy rope.
And there we are, with our speaker whom we can’t help but trust, despite the surreal surroundings into which we’ve been taken. The tension created between the cool, composed voice and these disparate images is the engine that drives each poem. Biddinger is a master of images, and the narrative lies somewhere in the gaps between them. This creation of gaps makes every poem act of reading: we must work to find the connections. We’re forced to look inward at times and outwards at others, actions which stimulate our emotions in vigorous ways. We, along with our speaker, are searching for the links and trying to make sense of the world within these lyric poems.
This is not to say that we feel lost as readers. A Sunny Place with Adequate Water is ripe with repeated images that act as touchstones. In “Revitalization Yields Questionable Results,” our first person plural speaker “just ate our bread, played another/ game of pin the sin on the sinner.” Later, in the poem “My Goodness,” we’re placed “in the abandoned bread/ factory.” There is a circling back to a familiar thing. This bread acts as both food and organic imagery. It sustains us and gives us strength as we’re pulled through a realm of coin-operated machinery, from “A Coin-Operated Arboretum” to “A Coin-Operated Apple Pie.” Biddinger creates a world of smoke and mirrors: things are not as they appear. Everything is slightly unfamiliar to us, and our reader is questioning her understanding of this mechanic life.
In “Coin-Operated Engine Finds Its Steam” she says, “The hair under your arms was coin-operated. I operated/ on myself until I was right enough to suit you.” We, along with the speaker, struggle to understand how this world operates. As the poems pull us deeper, however, there is a revision and return which builds this book from a collection of poetry into a world that holds us close. The final poem, “Inside Every Vending Machine It’s 1979,” is strangely cyclical. We end up inside a vending machine, moving deeper into this “coin-operated” life. Here, “there’s no such thing as nostalgia.” Here, we finally comprehend, “Everything/ is looking for a way out, or a way back in.” It’s a seemingly stable verse, yes, but it leaves us with an unfinished feeling, a yearning for one last beat. With this poem, Biddinger almost asks us to flip back to the start and re-read this collection, therefore revising our way of reading, of understanding. And maybe that’s what A Sunny Place with Adequate Water sets out to teach us: that we should practice patience and revision more often in our lives, even if
we’re trapped in an elevator, and the rug
is missing, and the walls are meant to imitate
the basements we all had and loved.
Nevertheless, there are some things in this turbulent world that are worth reflection.
Mary Biddinger is a poet, editor, and professor who lives in Akron, Ohio. She was born in Fremont, California, and grew up in Illinois and Michigan, and then attended the University of Michigan (BA in English and Creative Writing), Bowling Green State University (MFA in poetry), and the University of Illinois at Chicago (Ph.D. in English, Program for Writers). She is currently Professor and Assistant Chair of the English Department at the University of Akron, where she is on the faculty of the NEOMFA: Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program.