Criticism & Features




Cadaver Dogs, No Tell Books, 2008.

Rebecca Loudon lives and writes in Seattle. She’s the author of Tarantella and Radish King (Ravenna Press) and Navigate, Amelia Earhart’s Letters Home (No Tell Books). She is a professional musician and teaches violin to children.

The saying goes, “Do not judge a book by its cover,” which is a challenge with this cover (and its equally attention-grabbing title). It certainly invites a second glance, if not a stare. There’s something fairytale-like (a la Brothers Grimm) in the pages of Cadaver Dogs, a book that startles and stuns at every turn. Indeed, we encounter a murderous Goose Girl, reptile monarchies, wicked Queens and, in the title poem, “a fairytale princess trapped in a hospital” and Harriet Nelson’s “desperate hands wiping and wiping the sterile skin.” Do you push the dark imagery fearlessly or do you sometimes find yourself scaling back on certain language or lines to avoid overwhelming the poem? Who’s your ideal reader? 

I don’t necessarily push dark imagery in my poems as much as I embrace darkness when it arrives in my life, and find a way for that darkness to exist inside language. These images rarely feel taboo, verboten. They are simply part of the soup; the weird, exhilarating, treacherous beauty of my inner and outer worlds. I observe these worlds from a place of wonder and deep play. I am, however, a fearless reviser, and when I scale back, its because my word choices lack music or sense or feel static. My scalpel is sharp.

My ideal reader is a person who has suffered, who feels apart, who has known trauma, and who is capable of honestly engaging with the lot they’ve been handed. Everyone has suffered, but some people are willing to embrace the forest that surrounds us, some are not. Many readers prefer the tranquil, the pastoral, the serene. These are not usually my readers. The groundbreaking photographer Diane Arbus once wrote of her work, “There’s a quality of legend about freaks. Like a person in a fairy tale who stops you and demands that you answer a riddle. Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.” (From Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph). I think perhaps Diane’s aristocrats are my ideal readers.

Bees, wasps and needles are the tiny threats that poke through (sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun) repeatedly the pages of the book. The wasp especially makes notable appearances: it “crawls deeper into the fig” if it isn’t “fucking the fig.” Your poetry is neither polite or at peace—the landscape is closer to nightmare than dream. But from all of this comes a dose of reality, a wake-up call from fantasy and the Disney happy endings. How are the troubling times we live in influencing the direction and shape of your work? Or is the world in your poems engaged with a different matter altogether?

We have always lived in troubling times. Cadaver Dogs carries a subtext of how dangerous our world is for children. In particular, the title poem, which explores my own childhood, and “inside the smallest fury,” a poem I wrote after the murder of Zina Linnik, a 12 year old Tacoma girl who was abducted on the 4th of July, 2007. Most of the poems in the book spring from my unique world view, from my understanding and study of art as a complete entity. Music, literature, photography, painting and poetry all spring from the same source in my mind. These arts are not separated with tidy map lines. My music informs my poetry which informs my paintings which informs my need to jump up and dance with spontaneous, joyous abandon, much to the horror of my son. You referred to “something fairytale-like” in your first question, and this is, indeed, how I intended the book to be entered. How could I spend time in the forest without intimate knowledge of Beethoven, his anger, the low chords pounding through his symphonies as he suffered with total hearing loss, an inability to love, his drunkenness, his sciatica? Without the photography of Diane Arbus, the light of Kandinsky? This is my vision, and I have always seen the world as bright and weird, slightly skewed, tipped on its side, wobbled, and plopping along like a four square ball missing a third of its air. I am not interested in timid, quiet, pastoral or nice poetry. I’d rather my poetry ran bellowing down alleys at night in bare feet, than sip tea and stare out a window.

“Where are my small incidents, the blood poured from the shoes?” is a line from the unabridged journals of Sylvia Plath, and which you use as a title for a poem. And indeed there is something very “Plath-ish” about Cadaver Dogs, namely the acerbic metaphors like the one in this poem: “the boy’s conscience, the ring of tiny sores around the world’s red mouth.” What other poets have helped sharpen your poetic skill and who are some of the poets writing today that you believe are taking risks and rising above the quiet sea of the even-tempered poetry shelf?

The first poet who caught my full attention was Dylan Thomas. I read him, not fully understanding the subtleties of his work, but drawn to the music of his language. By that time I was 9 years old and a serious student of the violin. Poetry and music had permanently fused in my brain. Of course I read Plath’s The Bell Jar, as did all my junior high school mates, and found my loneliness vibrating in tune to hers. I was drunk for a year on Gerard Manley Hopkins. Later I discovered Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin. When I was in a 7th grade science class, I read a poem in The New Yorker, a poem that resonated so radically inside me I can still remember exactly what I was wearing that day, where I was sitting in the classroom, and how tiny dust motes looked that floated through the air in that classroom as I read. The poem was James Dickey’s “Falling.” Something broke open inside me with that poem. Poetry broke open inside me.

I love the work of Jorie Graham, Amy Gerstler, Brenda Hillman, Lara Glenum. These poets write poems that are shivering, restless, anxious and dangerous. Carolyn Forche’s poem “On Earth,” that was modeled on ancient Gnostic hymns, inspired me to write the poem “Cadaver Dogs.” These poets move forward in their work with headstrong purpose. I am excited by poetry that exists in disguise, as in the work of Jeanette Winterson, whose writing tips back and forth between poetry and prose thus inventing its own architecture, and the graphic novels of Art Spiegelman and Marjane Satrapi. These artists create vibrant, dynamic work that is moving poetry away from its static center.

Author Photo: Gail Barton