~by Anne Champion
The cover of Alexis Ivy’s debut collection depicts a scattered stack of cards and a hand overturning the Queen of Diamonds and the Eight of Clubs. The Queen of Diamonds, of course, denotes power, royalty, and adornment, while the eight is a common symbol of infinity: all of this is embedded within the gamble, a game of chance, risk, and luck. Similarly, these themes seem to trail the speaker of this collection in poems that take risks resulting in big payoffs. These poems travel through the seedy underbelly of American life, exploring characters bound by their own self destruction embedded in a world of sex, drugs, liquor, and crime and a speaker that’s attracted to the scarred, the imperfect, and the dangerous. While redemption and happy endings seem impossible in this collection, the poems refuse pity, instead transforming gutters into places of magic, insight, and growth.
Many poems in the collection recall still life paintings in their vivid imagery and details. However, these still lifes illustrate ruin and utter desolation. “So I Got Stoned,” depicts the actions and backgrounds of a speaker who has plummeted into silence. The poem begins “I sorta wasn’t talking,/I sorta didn’t talk./I didn’t talk.” These lines reveal the speaker’s reluctance to speak even now, as it takes several tries before anything can be said with any certainty. Then, the still life gets painted through several sharp, compelling details, and the poem ends with the speaker’s reflection:
the willows at the Charles River,
chain smoking so I wouldn’t be
just sitting there.
It seems clear that the frozen muteness is all pervasive, as the speaker asserts that she had to smoke just to not merely exist; in this portrayal, readers understand the anxiety behind a life that grows too still.
Much of this work focuses on societal outcasts, and the speaker clearly relates to these figures as she analyzes and observes them. There’s longing and a sense that these characters have a sense of self that’s been pilfered from them, either through some sort of abuse or their own penchant for risk taking and danger. Most importantly, Ivy uses her descriptions of surroundings to mirror the inner self of most her characters. In “Vegas,” she writes:
Just a bunch of nighttime,
a slew of half moons,
the world’s greatestlights.
I stop at a wedding chapel,
three bullet holes in the altar
and the palm trees too
plastic to take seriously.
Vegas is already easily associated with the idea of a façade: it’s a desert city using massive amounts of energy resources to keep it a vibrantly alive spectacle. Thus, we associate the speaker in this manner: someone desperately trying to keep the flashing lights going, yet struggling to do so and feeling empty in the process. The chapel shows its wear and the inherent danger surrounding it, and the plastic palm trees betray how unnatural this front of beauty and love really is. This weary falsity seems to be the central crisis of the speaker.
However, Ivy manages to make all her social outcasts relatable, and points to the universal human experience whenever she can, reminding us that the grittiness is not so far removed from anything or anyone else. “Isn’t everybody fruit,” she writes, “on the way to rotten?” (“I Have My Reasons”). In detailing these human truths, Ivy manages to evoke a profound sense of empathy and a vibrancy for life in all its shapes. In “I Deed Them All My Dime,” she illustrates this well:
Walk all the way to Chinatown
Meet a girl from detox copping
a fix. She says she’s nine days
clean but just for today
she’s letting it slide.
I care. I care for too long.
These desolate images haunt the pages of Ivy’s book, as does this sense of caring for longer than you want to or even longer than is healthy for one to care.
I’m most impressed by Ivy’s use of form in this book. For a subject matter riddled with chaos, risk, gambles, and addiction, the poems are surprisingly ordered and carefully crafted, when I could see them easily working in a freer verse form. Though the collection is clearly free verse (for the most part), the tight control of the poems through line breaks, tercets, and other verse forms clearly embody the deeper meanings of the text: this is a speaker looking desperately for order, even though, as the use of tercets suggests through its odd numbered lines, the speaker’s life feels incredibly off kilter and lacking in stability. In the Villanelle “River Styx,” Ivy’s use of repetition exposes a sense of obsession that comes with despair and loneliness in the repeated lines, “On the sullen bottom of the river,/it’s dark going without another.” Similarly, Ivy uses line breaks powerfully and vividly, so that the sharpest and most violent words pack a powerful punch. Her use of form shines a spotlight on her content and meaning.
However painful and desolate the content and characters of these poems are, Ivy does not leave you without hope. We walk away from the book feeling that many of the characters are powerless over their situations, and a strong sense of apathy and passivity led them to barren places. “Never used/a needle, just slid/into the direction of sliding,” Ivy writes. But that does not mean that transcendence and transformation are impossible. “Come Clean” defiantly asserts:
I’m up from where
I’ve been. No rain,
no hiding, no
hard hide brim
to keep me from
the heat-click stars.
No matter how painful our experiences, no matter how powerless we feel in our situations, Romance with Small-Time Crooks forcefully reminds us that there remains something we will always have control over within us as long as we harness its power. Alexis Ivy’s first book is a stunningly honest debut: while it documents loss, grief, abuse, crimes, drugs, anger and sex, it’s surprisingly rich in empathy and revelation.
Anne Champion is the author of Reluctant Mistress (Gold Wake Press, 2013). Her poems have appeared in Verse Daily, The Pinch, Pank Magazine, The Comstock Review, Thrush Poetry Journal, Poetry Quarterly, Cider Press Review, The Aurorean, and elsewhere. She was a recipient of the Academy of American Poet’s Prize, a Pushcart Prize nominee, a St. Botolph Emerging Writer’s Grant nominee, and a Squaw Valley Community of Writers Poetry Workshop participant. She holds degrees in Behavioral Psychology and Creative Writing from Western Michigan University and received her MFA in Poetry from Emerson College. She currently teaches writing and literature at Emerson College, Wheelock College, and Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences in Boston, MA.