REVIEW: Bent at the Spine

Bent at the Spine
by Nicole Markotić
BookThug (2012)

Reviewed by Lise Gaston

Bent at the Spine simultaneously invites us in and holds us back. BookThug’s design exemplifies this duality: on turning over the alluring paper-spined cover, the wider format allows the book to flop open perfectly in the hand. Its generous margins, coupled with the sheer energy of Markotić’s writing, invite annotation, response, exclamation points, while the beautiful design warns of preservation. I compromise by writing neatly.
Markotić’s text rushes headlong into questions of modernity, feminism, and poetics—then halts, giggles a bit, and skips in a circle around them. The whole book performs: all poems “Link the vast grammar quirk” with which Markotić challenges both the patriarchal narrative and the expectations we place on a sentence: “dire sentences sometimes end way before the period and sometimes well after. rubbing shoulders with that perfect dot can be a tricky landing.” For Markotić, the two are linked; in an essay called “Narrotics: New Narrative and the Prose Poem,” she writes: “for me, the prose poem is a poetic strategy embedded with the structure of narrative, and a feminist response to patriarchal language and forms.” Most pieces here comment on writing—“Our bi-centennial ballads propose dried maples and Swiss long-division”—and its gender politics. The third section, “Widows and Orphans,” constructed in segmented prose poems, is where Markotić’s feminist poetics really come to the forefront: it is crammed with quotable lines, delivered with a laughing energy that bites just enough at politics, gender norms (“11 men invent the possibility that women do not require an orgasm to achieve pregnancy. yeast infections either”), and poetry: “slip in a line break when the reader’s not trying.”
“Big Vocabulary,” a poem in four parts, begins the book, and lives up to its promise; this extravagant English luxuriates in song and allusion, only to snap back for the quick retort: “Honey, want some loss with your hot sauce—mind the rhyme schemes.” The second section, “Couples,” is written primarily in couplets, though no rules in this book are too strictly adhered to: “a hidden, a spoken, a folded, a fly / try olden, try coping, try knitting high / …er.” In this section, language trips over its own weird familiarity and the eye flies: “succumb to Winnipeg / suck on combs pegged to winter.”
Each of the book’s five sections is stylistically distinct, though familiar phrases are constantly tucked in the ebullient unfamiliar, and Markotić’s quirky voice carries throughout. The final section, “Guests,” addresses other writers, invites them in, and lets the reader sit and watch. These pieces are more lyrical, while still not forgetting to comment on their form, on “wind speeds as enjambment, cirrus as infernal semi-colon.” Appropriately for such an exuberant book, a book that continuously gives and then pulls away with a chuckle, it ends by saying everything and nothing at all—not even a period, just a one-word line: “etcetera.”