Linda Lee Harper, Kiss, Kiss

Publisher: Cleveland State University Poetry Center
2008, 77 pages, paperback, $16

linda lee harper’s Kiss, Kiss,winner of the Cleveland State University Poetry Center Open Competition in 2007, greets the reader with a cover that burns like flame in red and yellow and features a woman’s almost smiling lips. Already warm and enticed by the book’s cover, the reader enters into Harper’s world–one of startling heat, pain, and honesty. Kiss, Kiss takes the reader through a spectrum of seemingly private human experiences, including desire and lust, consensual and amorous sex, love and divorce, child rape, body image struggles, infidelity, the aging body, and accidental killings. Harper’s book creates a deeply personal relationship from start to finish. In the way the book begins, it also ends–the last line is “kiss, kiss,” so the reader’s first and last contacts with the book work like a comfortable European greeting. More informal than formal–and certainly warmer than a handshake–the book sets up an intimate and approachable relationship between the reader and speaker.

One of the most effective elements Ms. Harper uses to establish a relationship with her reader is her approachable diction; the poems work, for the most part, because of their accessible and easy-to-read language, which reinforces the book’s intimate feel. While Ms. Harper shows consistency in diction, she shows quite the opposite in form and her use of white space on the page. The poems in Kiss, Kiss vary widely in their visual appearance, from tightly constructed tercets and short-lined stanzas to large blocks of prose-like print running from margin to margin. For some readers, the diversity in formal representation may be quite appealing; such variation can prevent boredom, as well as allow some insight into the relationship between form and content. But for other, perhaps less experienced readers of poetry, the wide variation in form may be unsettling or confusing. Why, a reader may ask, do poems like “Hallowed Ground” or “In the Warp” exist in short-lined stanzas, and poems like “Ethos of the Eccentric and Other Bullshit” and “Wind” show up in block prose? The variation in form does uphold the intimate nature of the poems because each poem acts as one of a series of individual conversations between the speaker and the reader.

Another element Ms. Harper uses well to connect intimately with her readers is the context in her poems. The places visited in Kiss, Kiss are the Southeastern United States–distinctly rural places–as well as a variety of home spaces. Ms. Harper makes connections between actual places–cities and the landscapes that make them–and then moves from a landscape to a human body. These jumps move Harper’s poems from being place specific to the universal. For example, a reader may or may not have a sense of familiarity with specific cities or businesses mentioned in the book, such as Augusta, Georgia, or The Waffle House. However, that same reader can identify with the universally understood idea of her own body, a territory she knows well, as a sacred place. Harper’s poem, “Hallowed Ground,” works to create the universal in its description of the human body as familiar territory and shared experience.

Ms. Harper displays a mastery of the poetic elements of metaphor and simile, which are, at times, exciting in the originality of their imagery. However, her use seems heavy-handed in places, to the point of pulling the reader out of the poem due to the burdensome layering of images. As the book progresses through its three sections, the reader almost anticipates what comes next–another clever metaphor–but Ms. Harper’s comparisons weaken through overuse. Too much of a good thing can be bad, and in this case the excessive use of metaphor does harm to Ms. Harper’s intimacy-building by making the poems seem less than a genuine sharing between reader and speaker, and more of an attempt to dazzle the reader with the author’s construction of metaphors. Another clever but overused tactic in Kiss, Kiss is the integration of the poem’s title as the first line of the poem. Eighteen of the book’s forty-or-so poems use titles as first lines. In some cases the title succeeds as a first line, but as she uses the technique over and over, it seems Ms. Harper is simply unable to come up with a good way to start a poem–as evidenced by this title/first line: “You’re Not Nearly as Interesting / as you think you are.” If the ingenious title/first line device were used less often, such a line would have more of an impact as a title and generally strengthen the collection. However, the frequently used method becomes an obvious technique that privileges craft over an experience of intimacy.

Overall, Ms. Harper’s attempts to create an approachable speaker and intimate poem to share with her reader are successful. She may, at times, undermine her own believability and sense of authenticity of voice by being too crafty. More often, though, Ms. Harper’s down-to-earth diction, variation in form, use of white space on the page, and dedication to the relationship between place and the human body pull the reader through the personal and seemingly private world of the poems in Kiss, Kiss.

-L. Stacy Christie