Reviewed by Mary Ellen Talley
Masquerade, A Memoir in Poetry
by Carolyne Wright
Lost Horse Press
Oct 21, Paperback, 92 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1736432334
Mardi Gras and Masquerade! Time for recollection and reflection as Carolyne Wright’s latest book weaves a veritable semantic parade of poems. They encompass the elusive years of the 1980s when Wright was a young writer from the Northwest navigating a mixed-race relationship in the South. Her poems incorporate carnival culture and the New Orleans jazz scene as well as the financially strapped family lives of the locals there.
In this memoir, Wright removes her metaphorical mask to reveal her past through narrative and lyric poems that are often witty and erotic, yet always compelling and compassionate.
The writing in Masquerade is erudite, with frequent literary allusions that enrich the poems. From the moment young Wright meets the handsome neighbor to her writing studio, the pheromones are on high alert. In “At First Sight,” she writes of “Kismet’s / metabolic blow-dart” but signals premonition with the final question, “Cupid’s curse / or Caliban’s cri-de-coeur?”
Wright is adept at mixing ancient history and mythology with everyday references and local lore. For example, “IV. Round: What Love Is” begins with “I am never Aphrodite’s fool” in commenting on “all our belongings stacked / in this shotgun house’s makeshift rooms.” Then in the title poem, “Masquerade” Wright describes the Mardi Gras parade’s “Momus Rex” riding by on his palomino. How apt a subsequent line, “Honey, we’re known / by our disguises.”
With a geographic nod in the first section of the collection to the beach dunes of Cape Cod and and depictions of the apartment wall she shares with the man for whom she is tempted to cast caution to the wind, “The Putting-Off Dance” discloses Wright’s conflicted inner dialogue. Should she begin a relationship or not? The poem ends:
of North Atlantic sand between my quilted
comforter and pillows, I scribble
predictions in the dark while the town
sleeps, inventing one last reason
it wouldn’t work, my body up against
the wall, braced for giving in.
Running through this collection are poems that reveal a young woman juggling logic and emotion when responding to confrontations regarding her being taken advantage of romantically and financially. In “Get Out of This House,” the couple argue:
you snarl, your features a carved
mahogany mask. “Not until
you give me back my part of it,”
I say. What in the moment’s tension
nails my wits to this answer?
How much was that down payment?
Such a paltry sum today – in those days
half my savings. Your righteous rage
deflates, you sit down heavily on
the arm of the blue floral sofa from Sears
Wright delivers mesmerizing lines that both delight and project a sad reflective beauty. Along with clever literary inclusion and word play, she demonstrates her impressive command of poetic forms such as rounds, triolets, canzones, pantoums, syllabics, sestinas, and ghazals as well as free verse. The third couplet of “Ghazal: Other Than Yours,” for example, flows forth with “Night descends its spiral staircase, unfolds its sable / patterns on the bed, no skin satin other than yours.”
The young Wright can’t escape judgment on a visit home to Seattle. Her
mother announces in the poem, “White,” that “‘You need someone just like him / but white.’” Wright describes how “The gavel/bangs / in her syllables. I swallow my shock / beyond her knowing.”
In the same poem, Wright displays her skills at making poems resonate rhythmically and sonically. She refers to her own evasive answers to her mother with alliteration, calling herself “Deception’s / dutiful daughter.” Casting lines with assonance, she writes “of “picking wisdom’s / wishbone with myself” as well as of her “mother’s equivocal oracle.”
The young woman in these poems becomes aware of racial, housing, and social discriminatory practices toward the Black community in general and toward Black men specifically. These realizations complicate her personal decision-making.
Wright pairs personal interactions amid temporal cultural events, such as in “The Gondola: New Orleans World’s Fair.” Though the couple may not be able to take in some of the pricy entertainment, Wright notes that:
We turn to watch the fireworks display
on the river’s theme-pavilion walls.
Pyro-technicians light their nitro-
glycerin flowers, each spent flash
floats downwind in an ash-petal haze
like souls released from judgment.
The gondola stops, a string of pleasure craft
stunned by a fire fight, travelers
agreeing to any terms of surrender.
We put our stainless flatware down.
She encounters negative responses toward her interracial relationship. “The Divide: New Orleans” tells of being treated well initially by a clerk in a gift shop, “Hey honey! the lady behind the counter / chirps How’s every little thang?” But then the clerk notices the Black boyfriend accompanying her, “Get up out that chair, / miss, less you mean to buy it.”
Delivering her signature witty-literary-lyricism, Wright exclaims in “Family Matters” that “I’m shy as wood smoke // with your family.” In “Epithalamion in Blue,” she reflects in bemused puzzlement, “Who did we think we were? / Ebony Adam and ivory Eve.” She addresses how she stands out in New Orleans in “Note from the Stop-Gap Motor Inn” when she says, “I’ve walked the streets / wearing my Silent Majority look, // my Welcome to America complexion.” The poems convey the young speaker’s combination of astute observer, youthful good intentions, and some naivety.
Only with the distance of years could Carolyne Wright create such a variegated memoir in poetry about this sensual, exhilarating, and conflicted period of her life. In the poem “Another Country,” she notes, “You rail against the middle class / as if I weren’t.” Time plays out its healing cliché as Wright expresses compassion toward her former lover and her younger self:
This Crescent City winter, I am foe
of your foe, flesh
of your flesh, questioning
easy truths I’ve lived by. I don’t know
the score, the difficult history
of our differences. I think all losses
can be recompensed, all heartaches
we deny each other across
the years claimed for ourselves.
As with many love affairs, this one has a melancholy ending, leaving Wright to explore the story and parse out her reflections after the couple’s final breakup. The final poem in this splendid book, “The Devil and the Angel” ends:
I am the Angel
of No Losses, one wing in debt
divided, connected by the sun’s
infernal touchstone. Welcome
to my world. The demons are intrigued
by our hard choices
About the reviewer: Mary Ellen Talley’s reviews have been published in Colorado Review, Sugar House Review, Entropy, Crab Creek Review, and Compulsive Reader. Her poems have been widely published in journals such as Raven Chronicles, Gyroscope and Ekphrastic Review as well as in several anthologies. A chapbook, Postcards from the Lilac City, was published by Finishing Line Press in October 2020.