Sara Biggs Chaney
Review of One Never Eats Four by Samantha Duncan
Washingtonville, NY: ELJ Publications, 2014. 40 pp. $12.00. paper
Before sitting down to read and review Samantha Duncan's second chapbook, One Never Eats Four, I was not familiar with her work. Reading her latest collection, therefore, was a bit like getting to know a new acquaintance. Inevitably, there comes a moment of 'sizing up.' A moment of asking myself: What is she all about?
Determining just what Duncan's poems are 'all about' was a more complicated task then it first appeared, since the work defies easy encapsulation. When reading One Never Eats Four, I quickly sensed that these lyrical and often sharply intelligent poems are not "about" their content so much as their voice. The voice that threads throughout and brings coherence to Duncan's collection has a satisfying kind of complexity—equal parts wry and expansive, epigrammatic and ornamental.
In her wry moments, Duncan speaks to us in truncated lines of calculated understatement, as in the opening of "Spurt":
"I've had a falling
out with polemical
poems. In no
The valiant knight
Cross the valiant
porn-scape to be
Elsewhere, she plays free with metaphor, building chains of figurative association that are often surprising and emotionally dissonant, as in the opening of the collection's first poem, "Seesaw":
When you get off and assume the shape
of my oldest article of clothing,
my hair rises inside canned laughter,
cusped on delicate ruin.
The images in her poems are often built according to a logic of disjuncture, with pathways of meaning usually leading away from their expected destinations. While some readers may find it a challenge to discern a larger whole towards which these lines are building, Duncan's artistry definitely shines through most brightly at the unit of the statement, which is in her case sometimes (though not always) equivalent to the line. One Never Eats Four is a veritable treasure trove of delicious statements, many of which read as poems in their own right. Here are a few of my favorites:
From this life, I don't want a sonnet.
I can break down boxes that used
to house kittens for a paycheck (from "Shifts")
You'd stop and pick a lemon, smell it, and ask to
hear its whole philosophy on the African water
filtration systems we all want to build. (from "Fire")
It's a well
carved from soap for a humanities
class project, and we won't piss
obvious points, (from "This Is Not A Well")
When I was six, this poem
was anatomically incorrect drawings of my mother. (from "Nest")
In such condensed and crafted moments, the voice of the collection as a whole—should I call it cynical? Witty? Heartbroken? At times, hilarious?—speaks loudly.
Duncan also does an admirable job of creating thematic coherence in the collection through the strategic repetition of key images, the most memorable of which is certainly the "well," which appears centrally in five poems (all titled "This Is Not A Well."). While the image is reoccurring, Duncan artfully shifts its meaning with each reappearance, layering new connotations and emotional resonances.
Which brings me back to the question of the "aboutness" of this chapbook. While Duncan clearly enjoys free play with metaphor, she is careful to resist any simple metaphoric equivalences in her work (as she reminds us through the repeated negation in the title mentioned above—this is not a well). She leaves us, then, to wonder: What is "it" if not a well? A domestic space within which the speaker is trapped? A humanities class project? A female body? (Her own? Her mother's?) A poem? Or all of these?
In the end, I am left with "all of these" as the most suitable answer I can find. This small collection is large with resonances. As a poet, Duncan speaks a varied vocabulary that may not always cohere but does not fail to delight.
You can purchase One Never Eats Four here.
Sara Biggs Chaney received her Ph.D. in English in 2008 and currently teaches first-year writing in Dartmouth's Institute for Writing and Rhetoric. Sara's poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in RHINO, the Dialogist, [PANK], inter/rupture, Dr. T.J. Eckleburg Review, and other places. You can catch up with Sara at her blog: sarabiggschaney.blogspot.com.