Karla K. Morton, Redefining Beauty

Publisher: Dos Gatos Press
2009, 63 pages, paperback, $17.55

karla k. morton’s book of poetry, Redefining Beauty, is the author’s first since being named Texas Poet Laureate for 2010. Redefining Beauty, a collection of poetry written during Morton’s cancer diagnosis, treatment, and remission, is dedicated, as the author explains in her preface, “to all those wanting to taste the earthy, raw, root of life–bound by undeniable hope.”

This collection, published by Dos Gatos Press, found its way to editor Scott Wiggerman’s desk “quite by accident–while reading a Facebook entry” and is Dos Gatos’ second book release to date. An Austin-based, non-profit organization, Dos Gatos’ Tex-centric goals are to increase the availability of poetry for readers and “to support writers of poetry–especially in Texas and the Southwest.”

Indeed, Texas appears throughout Redefining Beauty and, for better or worse, is as central an issue as the cancer itself. Morton characterizes herself in “No Postcards”:

You say your prayers
and shave your head.
You pull on your boots,
and you kick ass.

A religious, rugged, can-do cowgirl, ready to wrangle breast cancer and subvert the norms of beauty–with the obligatory pageantry of any true Texas woman–“I walked the streets with my big, chunky/earrings, smiling so they’d wonder/if it was fashion or disease.” The poems are more than fashion statements; they are her personal chronicling of the effects of terminal illness on self-identity, romance, and familial relationships. Because cancer has affected the lives of so many, Morton’s topical collection will find an audience outside poetry’s typical academic readership.

Yet for all the rough-and-tumble rogue attitude personified by Morton’s dialectic and southern imagery, the poems are restricted to the private realm so intensely that Redefining Beauty could also be catalogued in the self-help section of any bookstore.

Perhaps I am left feeling underwhelmed by the collection because, as Texas Poet Laureate, I expected Redefining Beauty to explore the complexities of illness beyond one’s fixation on their appearance. Yes, there are poems that explore death, survival, and spirituality. But in light of her political appointment (not to mention the political climate), I had hoped for a broader exploration of the mundane trials that illness brings along with the disease itself: (un)availability of medical treatment, health care coverage, or simply a rising stack of bills. Though this may not be an issue for Morton herself, it is a grim reality for the Texans her poetry aims to speak to and for, as noted in this article from The Houston Chronicle:

Not only does the Lone Star State lead the nation in its uninsured population, adults and children alike, but the percentage of residents without health coverage could balloon from 27.5 percent to as much as one-third of the population in the next 10 years, a new study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Urban Institute predicts.
Another gloomy report, issued by the Commonwealth Fund, ranked Texas among the 10 worst states for health-care access, prevention of disease, medical treatment, avoidable hospital use and inequality of health care between rich and poor.
Texas topped the nation in the percentage of residents who avoid physicians because they can’t afford it and ranked 49th for adults without a regular doctor. (Dunham and Burton)

I realize that using one’s voice against the system is risky, but taking a position on (or, perhaps, simply mentioning) healthcare reform pales in comparison to the incendiary reading of “Somebody Blew Up America” that cost Amiri Baraka his title as New Jersey’s Poet Laureate in 2001. The lack of social commentary ignores the reader and robs the poetry of a certain authenticity: the knowledge that in any crisis, the world around us does not lose relevancy. The issues of the external world impact the self as much as the exploration of self can enhance one’s awareness of community. The only social comment given by the author comes in “Making Pink Lemonade”:

Every time
I step out without
Hat or wig,
I become
an interactive billboard–
bold in bald neon,

every woman there
to get a
without having to whisper
one single pink word.

Though using one’s physical appearance as a reminder to increase rates of early detection is admirable, the fact that Morton has reduced her efficacy to that of a billboard, when she holds the Laureate’s platform and microphone, belittles the cause she fights for as well as the power of poetry.

Although it may be considered unfair to judge Redefining Beauty in terms of what it fails it mention, the narrow range of content therein not only undermines the goals of the publisher, but also Morton’s own desire for the reader to “taste the earthy, raw, root of life–bound by undeniable hope.” Luckily, many readers who might note Morton’s glaring oversight will not have the chance to be offended–when you have to decide between medical treatment and one’s home, buying this book is hardly a responsible option.

-Katie Ellison