A review of Woman Drinking Absinthe by Katherine E. Young

Reviewed by Charles Rammelkamp

Woman Drinking Absinthe
by Katherine E. Young
Alan Squire Publishing
March 2021, $15.99, 72 pages, ISBN: 978-1942892243

“Who doesn’t desire to be mesmerized by love?” Katherine E. Young asks in “Place of Peace,” a poem that conflates passion with a visit to Shiloh National Military Park, a Civil War memorial. Love, indeed, is the overarching theme of this remarkable collection. The speaker of the poem has gone to the Mississippi battlefield as a “pilgrimage”; the point of any pilgrimage, she tells us, is “to ask why.” She is recovering from an affair, seeking her own peace in the land of Faulkner, comparing herself to Dewey Dell Bundren and Lena Grove, characters from As I Lay Dying and Light in August, whose very names allude to sex. 

Her son is a casualty of the love affair. What does he know, how does he ask? Young, again imagining herself as “an overripe Southern belle” gone out in her chaperoned buggy to watch the spectacle, confides

So many battles are accidental. Love,
my son, when it finally comes – unlooked for,

savage, bursting riotous into bloom,
stunning us while we lie dreaming – love’s

the only thing worth fighting for.

This is the “why.”  The ironically titled “Place of Peace” is a beautiful extended metaphor, a conceit that Young employs so well throughout the collection, from “Euclidean Geometry” and “Plane Angle,” in which she meditates about love in mathematical terms (point, line, boundary, surface, circle), to “Figs” and “Salt” and “Interval,” a lovely poem that looks at love in jazz terms. It ends:

“I’m a sensual man,”
you say to me as you stroke
my keys, pluck
my catgut strings, blow
Coltrane through my bones.

The book opens with a six-part parable-like love poem about a woman wooed by a bear. At the heart of the poem she writes:

I tell the bear, “My prince
will come claim me.” Clear, uninflected.
The bear just laughs.
“Does his skin smell of musk,
his flesh taste like honey?
Does his fur warm you in winter?
Does he know to smooth your cheek
with all his claws drawn in?

This conflict between marriage and desire, the contradictions at its heart for somebody primed to be mesmerized by love, sets us up for the second part of the collection, which focuses on an extra-marital affair, including poems like “Planning Your Suburban Affair,” that describes the tricky parts of conducting an affair (“Pack a flashlight, fine, / but you can’t ever turn it on.”). “Home Visit” displays an awkward scene in which the woman meets her lover’s family. Others show us the kissing in cars, the screaming of the betrayed, all the messy bits. The poem, “If There Is a Hell” supplies consequences of the condition: “it blinks cold, disapproving”; “it tastes of tea brewed by your wife”; “it kisses like my husband scenting you / on my lips….”
Sex and violence are linked throughout the book. Besides the poem, “Bluebeard,” in the voice of one of the wives of the man in the French folktale who murders his wives, women are often hit, slapped, called “Whore.” In the poem, “Succuba” the narrator reminds her lover that when he comes late at night,

smearing honey on my breasts:
mouthing greedily, you curse me.

Again, in “Place of Peace,” the poem that conflates love with the battleground, Young writes, “Iron fingers

tightening around a rifle stock,
tightening around a woman’s throat.

Young takes us to the Paris of the painter, Édouard Manet. “Bar at the Folies Bergère” examines the character of the prostitute/barmaid in Manet’s famous painting, the smell of her costume, her behavior around the customer. (“Why should she look at you? Can you give her / what she needs, or even cab far home?”) In “Woman Drinking Absinthe,” the eponymous poem, we’re back in the bar with a woman and her lover, the barmaid looking on. The man speaks of his wife and children; the woman wonders what she’s doing there, her “role in this miserable tableau.” Resigned, she tells herself

“This must be love.” Already I’ve
succumbed to viridescent dreams –
numbed myself to fingers fumbling
at bra straps, clasps, the cup and suction
of your mouth, the weals it leaves – louche
of bitter wormwood, of aniseed.

Throughout the collection, Young depicts the demimonde of women in the midst of affairs of the heart, neither fish nor fowl, but mostly foul; at least, fraught with emotional turmoil. This is captured so succinctly in “Postcards from the Floating World,” a series of four haiku that all begin similarly: “I cry out. His words”; “I cry out. His eyes”; “I cry out. His lips”; “I cry out. His hands / claw fierce, wild, deeper than pain / cradling my face.” The balance between pleasure and pain is a constant seesaw.

Elsewhere, Young channels Kate Pinkerton, the wife of Lieutenant Pinkerton in Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. “Mrs. Pinkerton Charts the Stars,” “Mrs. Pinkerton Finds Her Sea Legs,” and “Mrs. Pinkerton Interprets Local Custom” flesh out her responses to her husband’s affair and Cio-Cio-san’s suicide. In the sonnet that begins the sequence, Kate reflects:

Against his fingers’ paralyzing crawl
across my skin I sprawled defenseless, salty
trickle from my thighs complicit in
the pin and rip of canines (always that line:
pain before pleasure, pleasure won’t begin).

Even up until she sees her husband’s cowardice, she marvels at “how fine a man” he was. Her feelings seem more nuanced, ambiguous, as the sequence ends, reflecting about him “mewling at my breast /night after bloodshot night” on their way home after Butterfly slits her throat.

Woman Drinking Absinthe is unflinchingly honest and lyrical in exploring illicit love, its allure, its dangers. Indeed, she’s very persuasive in contending that, forbidden or not, “love’s the only thing worth fighting for.”

About the reviewer: Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for BrickHouse Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. His latest book, Catastroika, was published in May 2020.  A chapbook of poems, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts, is available from Main Street Rag Publishing. Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, was recently published by FutureCycle Press. An e-chapbook has also recently been published online Time Is on My Side (yes it is).  Another chapbook, Mortal Coil, is forthcoming from Clare Songbirds Publishing.