This book of poems is actuated by the motif of the man who shook hands, a private reference to a terrifying experience, but an experience so trivial and innocuous that it takes the poet many lines, many false starts, before she is able even to narrate its details, much less explain her terror. In fact, she never directly does. The final success of the book is that the poet voices this leitmotif through such a kaleidoscope of situations, events, and images that the fright ultimately becomes serious rather than trivial, destructive rather than innocuous.
The persona of the poems, the poet herself, gains stature as she narrates and explicates her confrontations with this overwhelming and oft-repeated experience of rejection and the resulting intense loneliness. Each poem becomes a facet reflecting a new way of experiencing the central thematic crux—the vast loneliness of a single, middle-aged woman, and the painful rejections she experiences when she tries to form attachments.
The encounters Wakoski narrates in her poems are primarily those with men, and they are unabashedly sexual, tenderly sensual. Late in the order of the collection, she writes of an encounter with a woman from whom she expects candor and friendship, and voices her anguished sense of betrayal and rejection when the woman is revealed as having been dishonest with her. The final poems deal with the poet’s relationship to her mother. The character of the mother, a cold and bitter woman, is revealed almost as if by chance in poems expressing the poet’s rejection of the mother. The poet sees her likeness to her mother, and sees herself doomed to becoming inevitably more and more like her as she too becomes bitter and outwardly cold as a result of rejection. At each painful though infrequent encounter with the mother, the daughter becomes progressively more aware of their irrevocable bond of kinship and similarity.
Throughout the collection, the poet earnestly and singlemindedly seeks the love and companionship of a man. Wistfully, romantically, she weaves poems of longing for her ideal man—she refers to him as the King of Spain—and dolefully, nostalgically, sometimes angrily, she recounts her experiences with men whom she had hoped would fulfill the role and mend the huge void in her life. The nadir of her search and hopes was reached in the terrible title experience:
The man who shook hands with me, after making love,the last rung in some ladder to failureI’ve been descending.
The book begins with an essay seeking to explain or justify the poems that follow, since their relentless theme of loneliness and rejection could slip quickly into banality, soap opera, and self-pity. The poet is rightly concerned, for at times all three elements are present, although fortunately other positive strengths outweigh these flaws.
Wakoski has a fine sense of poetic diction, and her poems demonstrate a consistent linguistic appropriateness. The precision and care in choice of words give her work a professional smoothness and a richness of connotation which greatly enhances the semantic denotation. This talent for choosing the right word extends to and includes a fine instinct for the poetic line. It is a pleasure to enjoy the rhythms and sounds of language as Wakoski organizes them. She exhibits a sure instinct for the appropriate rhythm and length of line, together with a melodic patterning of sounds of speech which lift the subject matter out of the mundane and trivial ephemera of middle-age frustration and elevate it, at moments, to a high seriousness. The language of speech as transmuted by the poet into poetry is at once authentic and appropriate to the poem. Her words are the words of current, everyday, common speech,...
(The entire section is 1588 words.)