Reviewed by Deborah Bacharach
A Constellation of Kisses
Edited by Diane Lockward
Paperback: 202 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1947896178, July 2019
What type of kiss do you want? In the poem “In Koine Greek” Lynn Domina tells us “I want a nuzzle, a snuggle, a smooch.” Alice Friman in “Reading Boccaccio” heats it up when she says, “What I wanted / was to be ruined, to fling back my head / in an unbearable sweetness” the types of kiss the speaker has only read about in books. And in the ominous but also breathtaking “Paris, 1936” Jennifer Maier offers a kiss that makes us “deaf to warnings.” The 107 poets in the anthology A Constellation of Kisses edited by Diane Lockward offer the kiss to start your life or rev your life, the kiss that might destroy you, and the kiss that saves.
The first kiss poems set the stage with concrete details about rec rooms, shag carpets, and the names of the ones we had crushes on that threw me back into my early teenage body. These poems capture the yearning, the clumsiness, and the “paradox of moisture, lips, heat / and a glimpse of a landscape that seemed / both familiar and new” (“French Kiss” Patricia Clark). When I read of that landscape, I felt a frisson of recognition. Like with my favorite moments in poetry, I was told a truth I knew all along but didn’t know I knew. I did know a kiss as passion, but I didn’t know a kiss as good as Cathryn Cofell describes in “Covered in Hickies”:
But if you’re good, you’re Häagen-Dazs,
you’re Zorro, that fantastical face in a pillow,
that scene from Here to Eternity—the force field
pull, the deepening, closed eyes rolling back,
the whole mouth an open airlock
on Mars and all the life being sucked
into that arid red desert,
feet ripping out of books like a blast of Bolero,
everything else inside building, moving
shifting, rushing to thunder,
the hurricane night deaf as a backdrop,
the night air sweet as nicotine.
This is one sentence that just builds and builds using the gerunds “deepening,” “ripping,” and “rushing” for a fast pace, telling us a kiss is delicious, indulgent, a fantasy brought to us by old movies, what saves us from dangerous aloneness, and addictive. This poem reminds us that a kiss is not just a kiss alone but that it changes us.
In “Confessions” Rajwant Saghera talks about the kisses that stay with you, so the passion permeates your day:
And now I have to speak to
About something else and
From moaning out
This poem takes a completely different approach with short lines, lots of enjambment, even vague words like “someone,” and it all also works to also create an eye-rollingly passionate moment.
Not all kisses are good, and this anthology asks us to spend time with the kiss that shows the marriage is not going to work, the kiss that betrays, and the “Nightmare Kiss” that tells us of a woman who got swallowed up by a kiss “as if she’d fallen in an open grave.” But this anthology spends much more time with the kiss that saves us. In “Gate C22” Ellen Bass tells us of a couple kissing:
like he’d just staggered off the boat at Ellis Island,
like she’d been released at last from ICU, snapped
out of a coma, survived bone cancer, made it down
from Annapurna in only the clothes she was wearing.
A kiss like this is not so much a celebration as a release from suffering. It’s the kiss that lets us reclaim our humanity as Jennifer Burd tells us in “Prison Literature Class” “It was a kiss so long / and so real that by the end of it, / the prisoner was a free man.”
You don’t have to be a card carrying poetry lover to fall in love with the poems in this book. I’m planning to put the anthology on my coffee table and look forward to the conversations it sparks with guests. (That is when we are allowed to have guests again. I am writing to you from the heart of social distancing.) Some of these poems turned me on. Some of them made me long to be the person being kissed for the attention and tenderness of it. Some of them made me cry. It’s like I had forgotten what a kiss meant. These poems bring it back.
About the reviewer: Deborah Bacharach is the author of After I Stop Lying (Cherry Grove Collections, 2015). She received a 2020 Pushcart honorable mention and has been published in journals such as The Adroit Journal, Poetry Ireland Review, Vallum, The Carolina Quarterly, and The Southampton Review among many others. She is an editor, teacher and tutor in Seattle. Find out more about her at DeborahBacharach.com.