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Your Ten Favorite Words
Craig Santos Perez
Coconut Books, 2007. 77 pp. $15. ISBN: 978-0-6151-6182-2.
Unpredictable, Humorous, Charming, Honest, Disarming, Profound, Whimsical, Strange, Passionate, and Unforgettable: ten words that describe Red Livingston’s poetry collection Your Ten Favorite Words (Coconut Books, 2007).
Those ten words could also be used to describe the main driving force of Livingston’s work: voice. Even though the tone changes throughout, Livingston’s narrative voice remains recognizable as it viscerally grabs this reader’s attention:
No Bra Required
on our underwear.
way too loose
on our rascal asses.
We must realize ourselves
into these big britches,
you declare. Love
in a handbasket. Hell
in my heart. My camisole,
yours, evermore. Never
have I believed in polygamy
more than I do rising this
Formally, the poems range from free verse, prose poems, and single line-stanza poems. One of my favorite prose poems captures Livingston’s brash, yet somewhat mysterious tone:
On Realizing There Won’t Be a Ceremony
Don’t call me feminine and excessive and screw you, I know that temple, I took her picture and it’s she who doesn’t remember me, the only one who knew to bring a red fritter to the reception. She thinks she’s cute and I’m impressed with her sanctity and her little pews too. (60)
Many of the poems read this way: accessible language, narrative, and imagery commingling with oblique references, associations, and contexts. It’s a compelling balance that Livingston pulls off through a voice that feels both trustworthy and untrustworthy. One of my favorite poems in Your Ten Favorite Words seems to give us insight into Livingston’s poetics:
Still Feeling It
still feeling fucked up and fake
still another day, still thick with hope
what a word wreck
what a display of linguistic insensitivity
a little something I call
rendered and insufficient
a little something I call
bohemian pain and one day
I’ll be all right again
thankfully I can’t keep making it new
there was a rare occurrence
I drank a bottle of wind
he looked at me strangely
I offered him
a Rolaid$$$this seemed
I want to call Livingston’s work “confessional surréaliste,” as it straddles what’s best about both modes: unpredictable strangeness and emotional honesty. Within these modes, her work becomes the opposite of rendered and insufficient, the opposite of bohemian pain, the opposite of staged and sentimental. We see all these qualities play out in a disarming list poem titled “What There Wasn’t Time to Mention.” This 4-page poem shows Livingston’s full associative range and playfulness. The last few lines read:
Stole from the register and put gas in my Buick
The bad man was a prison guard and I wasn’t who he wanted, but was the one alone and drunk and asleep on a sofa
Little memory exists of atheism, but occasionally old scriptures surface
Pretty spelled pity
Nothing fake about keeping up appearances
The rest were soldiers, I was the priest, healer or medic, depending on the century
By the time the New Kids were on the Block, there was no need, I had breasts
By telling these things, it will be everything and it will be finished
Mozzarella, squash, popcorn (54)
The strange telling throughout Your Ten Favorite Words — encompassing both major and minor themes — embraces language’s ability to create wonder and capture truth. Livingston mines memory and the moment to capture her varying tones (as priest, healer, medic, or manic) depending on the poem and the context, which are both utterly unpredictable. Cutting through the poetic voice is the poet’s humor, lurking around every corner, around every one of your favorite words.