MAD RIVER paints a complex picture of social life with clear, startling images. “What We Can Count On” tells of two girls who were kept in a closet by their parents, and “Morning Radio” describes a girl being quietly raped by her father as the radio plays a love poem. “Getting Through” portrays a creative-writing teacher passing through the prison metal detector and the guard’s rude skepticism about her teaching prisoners. “Awake in a Strange Landscape” shows the narrow vision of the poet’s fellow waitresses amid the irony of the rich and wasteful customers and the hardworking dishwasher, and “A Waitress’ Instructions on Tipping or Get the Cash up and Don’t Waste my Time” is just that. “Mad River” is the description of a teenaged girl taking money for kisses from a bus driver so she can eat, and “Fifteen” exposes a gynecologist kissing his teenaged patient. Other poems show the joy of true connection through sex: “Leonard Avenue” is the memory of making love in the woods, and in “Wanting to Continue” the softness of a peach brings back the memory of touch and connection. Throughout, the poet tells of her father’s dying of lung cancer: In “Visiting my Father a Few Days Before His Operation,” she remembers the garden wall he built and the fruit trees he planted, and in “T-shirts” she goes through the bag of his old T-shirts that she keeps in the hall.
Throughout the collection, Beatty demonstrates uncanny specificity: finding exactly the right words to portray the life of a scene, using only the few words necessary to do that, and juxtaposing simplicity and naivete with pain and suffering, and she does this without judgment, so that the irony of a situation speaks for itself. She also juxtaposes beauty, sex, and real touch with pain, death, and estrangement, so that the reader is left with an uncomfortable sense of the real troubles in life, but the assurance that there is beauty, and there is hope.