All-American Girl (Pitt Poetry Series)
University of Pittsburgh
Guest Reviewer Peter Klappert
Robin Becker takes us many places: to a Quaker meeting in suburban
Philadelphia, a drugstore in Buffalo, Wyoming, the pueblos of the American
Southwest, Haiti, Jerusalem and Katmandu. She takes us driving from Taos
to Santa Fe, cycling on the Maine coast, running domestic errands in
Italy, contradancing in New Hampshire, and flying across the stage in drag
as Peter Pan. She takes us up into the cosms. [ Click to Order Becker's All-American Girl (Pitt Poetry Series - soft $) ]
As it happens, this all-American girl--who loves dogs and horses,
skiing, hiking, skinny-dipping at midnight, bowls of berries and cream,
jazz, and modern art; who wants to be
the boy across the street
who hung upside down from a tree and didn't care
that his shirt fluttered over his bare chest
--[and who also] is a Jewish, lesbian poet who writes sensually and candidly about her
life--our life--as it happens.
Robin Becker's third book of poems is in mny ways continuous with
her second, Giacometti's Dog, also published by the University of
Pittsburgh Press. Her subjects are often the same: childhood in
Philadelphia, travel within the US (particularly to the desert Southwest)
and abroad, her Jewish heritage, family relations, grief for her father
and for her younger sister's suicide, and love between women. She has a
gift for listing and a gift for sensual description (the two often
ombine). In both All-American Girl and Giacometti's Dog, Becker's lyric
poems are also narratives: they often tell engaging stories even as they
express and illuminate emotion. Like most poets, Becker tends to write her
love poems at the start or end of love affairs (she seems to have been
blessed with many!), but she does so in ways which convey the rich
complexity of whole experiences. Her sense of irony is often humorous,
often poignant, and rarely cutting.
All-American Girl, is a more broadly sensual and intimate
collection than Giacomietti's Dog. As in the earlier book, Becker often
reimagines dark times and painful experiences, but in the new poems a
robust energy and disarming candor tend to displace a former delicacy and
triste-ness. In the earlier collection only a few poems are explicitly
about lesbian experience and fewer still are explicitly sexual. In these
lovely lines from "Philadelphia, 1955," for example, the young Robin
in a nightgown
closes the door and walks barefoot
on the black grass. Stars have grouped
like families into their fixed relations.
She welcomes the grat indifference
of the street and recites the names
of everyone asleep in the brick row houses.
In that "great indifference," she is discovering her difference, her
Everything that is her own is suddenly here
revealed, separate as her body
from the house with its lights
and troubles mounting the stairs.
Oh wild and tentative solitude, so new,
so graceless. How can she carry it
from the spacious night back to the distressed
and loving people of her life?
One of those "loving people" is the grandmother we meet in
Becker's new collection. In the many-sided poem "Too Jewish," "Bubbie" is
solicitous for her daughters' and granddaughters' happiness. She wants
them all to have nose jobs so that they will not look too Jewish: "I'll
pay! she cried."
Years later, in Jerusalem, I bought a Star
of David and hung it around my neck.
Why so big? she askeb. The whole world
has to know you're Jewish?
Poor Bubbie didn't know the worst! Becker takes us back to Philadelphia in
"A History of Sexual Preference," where she is
simultaneously butch girlfriend
and suburban child on a school trip,
Independence Hall, 1775, home
to the Second Continental Congress.
She is "seventeen and tired of fighting for freedom/ and the rights of
men. She is preparing her own Declaration of Independence and "teenage
escape from Philadelphia." She is "already dreaming of Boston--/ city of
women." The speaker and her girlfriend have just made love for the first
time "in a hotel room on Rittenhouse Square." They have the "surprised
look of people who have been kissing / and now find themselves dressed and
And I am happy as the young
Tom Jefferson, unbuttoning my collar, imagining his power,
considering my healthy body, how I might use it in the service
of the country of my pleasure.
Robin Becker takes us many places: her restless energy is not as
an escape from experience but an escape into experience. However far or
deep her journeys, she brings us home to essential truths of human
Peter Klappert is the author of five collections of poems; his The Idiot
Princess of the Last Dynasty will be reprinted in Carnegie-Mellon's
Contemporary Classics series next year. He teaches in the MFA Program at
George Mason Univerity.