Posts Tagged 'Eudora Welty'

A Theory of Lipstick

A Theory of Lipstick
Karla Huston
Main Street Rag Publishing Co. 2013

Reviewed by Bob Wake

Lip“I only write poems about sex,” begins Karla Huston’s poem “My Husband Thinks.” The poet proceeds to catalog the more quotidian concerns she insists have graced her work over the years, from “the dentist’s office” and “rotting potatoes” to “paperboys peeing in the snow” and “even the guy who stole my parking place.” But damned if “My Husband Thinks” doesn’t suddenly spring to pulse-pounding life with the lines, “Today I wrote about how the pubic hair I shaved / for you has started to twirl and bend again, / how the skin itches, the way a healing // wound does …”

Huston has never shied away from the maddening predicament of desire, its commingling of love and spite, sacrifice and lust. She can be a brutal satirist of the tyrannical male gaze. The poem “Mona Lisa Imagines” is a stream-of-consciousness monologue of mounting irritation by the artist’s iconic model while Leonardo—“farting when you bend for a rag, / or scratching your balls”—demands prim stillness from his subject: “At least the twelve apostles could / gnaw meat off bones while they lingered / or leaned into a bit of gossip / or fingered silver coins. Today // you want my hands folded just this way.”


Karla Huston. Photo: Steve Huston.

A Theory of Lipstick, Huston’s first full-length collection (after more than a decade’s worth of six well-received chapbooks), is comprised of fifty-four poems. While not always about sex, they are never less than insightful about our shared messy humanness and the ecstasies of the natural world. The title poem, which originally appeared in Verse Wisconsin and was awarded a 2012 Pushcart Prize, is another of the poet’s masterful catalogs that blends the sensible and the sensual, this time into a rhapsody of Day-Glo images: “made from fruit pigment and raspberry cream, / a lux of shimmer-shine, lipstick glimmer, duo / in satin-lined pouch, Clara Bow glow: city brilliant / and country chick—sparkling, sensual, silks / and sangria stains, those radiant tints and beeswax liberty— // oh, kiss me now, oh, double agents of beauty …”

Especially memorable are Huston’s portraits of small-town inhabitants whose lives have the vivid contours of Chekhov or Welty characters. They include “The Dog Catcher’s Wife” (“She’s concerned / that even the nets, nooses or tranquilizer / darts won’t save him from the angry ones”) and “Vanishing Woman” (“But now / even bad sex would be better / than none, grinding blindly into / the night, mapping the smoky / landscape with her flesh”), as well as rueful group snapshots like “Girls Tanning”:

Stretched on benches the first warm day in May
so sure of their beauty with their firm arms
and thighs, their high-riding breasts, so content
knowing that they own the world
as the wind steals their hair and eyes, bright
with the strain of staring into the sun,
posing, white teeth flashing as they lick
cherry gloss from their lips. […]

Accessible and inviting even at its most acerbic, Karla Huston’s A Theory of Lipstick is no unproven hypothesis, it’s a fully vetted and means-tested map of the American heart and heartland.

Eudora Welty’s “A Visit of Charity”

I love great beginnings. Take a look at the opening paragraph of Eudora Welty’s “A Visit of Charity” (from the Collected Stories), a wonderful story that famously was rejected 13 times by various magazines in the early 1940s, including The Atlantic Monthly and Ladies Home Journal. It was finally published in a small literary magazine for which Welty was paid $30. “A Visit of Charity” is about a hapless Campfire Girl hoping to earn a few extra merit points by making a perfunctory visit to a local retirement home.

It was mid-morning—a cold, bright day. Holding a potted plant before her, a girl of fourteen jumped off the bus in front of the Old Ladies’ Home, on the outskirts of town. She wore a red coat, and her straight yellow hair was hanging down loose from the pointed white cap all the little girls were wearing that year. She stopped for a moment beside one of the prickly dark shrubs with which the city had beautified the Home, and then proceeded slowly toward the building, which was of whitewashed brick and reflected the winter sunlight like a block of ice. As she walked vaguely up the steps she shifted the small pot from hand to hand; then she had to set it down and remove her mittens before she could open the heavy door.

One of the remarkable aspects of this passage, and indeed of the story as a whole, is the point of view employed by the author. We’re in the third person, of course, but note that Welty has chosen to dispense with any omniscience that might pull us comfortably into this girl’s state of mind and into the story. There’s a disquieting lack of empathy, seemingly on the author’s part. Yet, this emotional coldness is quickly established as the story’s central theme. Isolation, and images of isolation are reinforced throughout the paragraph. The day is cold. We’re on the outskirts of town. Moreover, the nameless girl (Marian, we learn shortly) is painted for us almost cruelly in terms of bland typicality. We’re told she’s wearing “the pointed white cap all the little girls were wearing that year.”

This young person clearly is no spirited free-thinker; even her walk is described as “vague.” She represents a sort of blindly dutiful, socially conditioned innocence. She is, in other words, ill-prepared for and blithely ignorant of the devastation of old age, of failing health, of loneliness and death, all of which are symbolized and foreshadowed in this opening passage by the image of a monolithic retirement home which Welty conjures as a kind of sinister internment camp. Not only does the ugly building resemble a “block of ice” in the harsh winter sunlight, but the “prickly dark shrubs” planted in front of the building suggest barbed wire.

Eudora Welty (1909-2001). 1989 Photo: Curt Richter.

You might think this sets the stage for a grim tale that sentimentalizes the elderly as oppressed victims of abuse and neglect. However, “A Case of Charity” is in fact one of Eudora Welty’s masterful little black comedies. Dickensian sentimentality is nowhere to be found. The two old women upon whom the young girl attempts to impose her charity are bitter and mean-spirited. Old age isn’t merely an inconvenience for them, it’s a black hole of delusion and despair. The old women bicker among themselves, they whine and say hateful things to one another. The girl is mocked and insulted by them, treated with the same kind of indifference that the story seems to imply we collectively treat our elderly in and out of society.  But Welty steers clear of easy symbols and this never remotely resembles a screed on the theme of ageism. Her adjectives set a tone of discomfort and unease. The implications are ultimately ambiguous, if deeply pessimistic. Youth and old-age alike seem unavoidably blighted by ignorance and folly.

Some commentators have seen the girl’s journey as a kind of allegory of a Persephone-like character descending into the underworld. The story ends with her outside of the retirement home biting into an apple, which has led others to see a biblical theme at work, of innocence tarnished and sent packing into the fallen world. Welty, who had little regard for academic critics—she was essentially self-taught as a writer—said the impetus behind the story was simply her own childhood memories of being creeped out by old ladies in retirement homes. She was being disingenuous, however, by that response. On other occasions she spoke of the care she took with every word in a story like “A Visit of Charity,” looking to bring out echoes of myths and fairy tales (the girl’s red coat, for instance) and biblical lore. Eudora Welty has been called a writer’s writer, in part, I think, because we as writers can learn so much from her work, from the choices she makes as a stylist and as a storyteller. Her best stories have a powerful impressionistic quality in which tone, imagery and character become indistinguishable from plot. “Action is character,” F. Scott Fitzgerald liked to remind himself.


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