Crown of Weeds
Amy Gerstler’s collection Bitter Angel (1990) won a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1991 and was widely reviewed and appreciated; critics commented on her unconventional, striking imagery, praising her surreal images and strange narrators. Bitter Angel was her sixth book of poems (she has also written fiction), but it was the first to attract wide notice. Reviewers across the United States noted the originality of the work, and its flaws were seen as outweighed by its overall effectiveness. In The Washington Post Book World, Michael Dirda commented on the improbability of some of the poetic connections but then said that “all objections are overruled by Gerstler’s sheer acrobatic brilliance.”
Born in San Diego, California, Gerstler belonged to the group of poets operating out of Los Angeles in the 1970’s and 1980’s who were associated with the poetry center Beyond Baroque. Before Bitter Angel, Gerstler was known mostly as one of this group, whose members focused on popular culture as subject and theme and whose work had a strong performance element. In the wake of Bitter Angel, the distinctiveness of Gerstler’s style has become known to a broader audience of poetry readers. Her next collection, Nerve Storm (1993), solidified her reputation, although it did not receive as wide and overwhelmingly positive reviews as Bitter Angel.
Crown of Weeds, her eighth book of poetry, varies its subjects but continues in the same mode as her earlier work—and the direction is well worth continuing. These poems are mostly magical narratives that blend the daily with the extraordinary in such a way as to suggest a definition of the self, a definition in which conscious and unconscious life are blended into one stream. These poems celebrate sentience in all its forms, and although they grieve over mortality, they tend to suggest the world is less limited than we think.
The topics range from the expected to the bizarre. Some of the poems cluster about beginnings and endings of lives—the perceptions of a young child, the diagnosis of a brother’s brain cancer. Others, perhaps more typical, create oddball personas to wrench the reader away from his or her usual perspective. Often the poems begin with a startling announcement—“Mixed Messages,” for example, starts off “Hi. I sketch dead fish for a living.” Conventionality is never the order of the day. If the poems do not begin with jolts, they contain them, as they leap precipitously from one situation to another that is only tangentially related.
This leap is a major part of Gerstler’s trademark style. A Gerstler poem is most typically a flying narrative that drags into the story whatever impinges or touches, so that there is a sense of a collection of impressions with some powerful force holding it all together—somewhat like Ezra Pound’s concept of Vorticism, which underlies his structuring of the Cantos. As in the Vorticist poems, the force in Crown of Weeds is hidden but surfaces now and then like a snake glimpsed in deep grass. Because of the reversals and sudden shifts, the poems usually continue to delight the reader from beginning to end. In Gerstler’s work, there is always some oddity, a freshness to balance the expected or the normal. If the situation is common enough, then the person who finds himself in it, and through it, is wholly unfamiliar but pleasing to meet. If the location is wholly new, the premise a wild invention, then the people of the poems are likely to be homefolk.
In general, the characters who inhabit these poems are intriguingly polymorphous. The poems often trick readers into identification and then turn on readers, or else they cause readers to question the process of identification and, in doing this, the nature of the self. The reader is brought to wonder: Can identity be both as flexible and as distinctively individual as it seems to be in these poems? Who or what are these strange yet familiar characters? To estrange the familiar and familiarize the strange brings together conscious and unconscious, forcing the realization on the reader that the surface of things is not their whole.
As her many critics have noted, Gerstler is preoccupied with suffering and redemption, and her poems are populated with half- saints and struggling sinners. As her award-winning book implies, her angel is a bitter angel, but an angel nevertheless. In American Book Review, Sarah Gorham described the redemption issue in Bitter Angel in a way equally true in Crown of Weeds:
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