Book Review -- Hating the Goddamn Peas: Angela Kelly’s Voodoo for the Other Woman by Jonathan Butler


There are no happily-ever-after endings in Angela Kelly’s Voodoo for the Other Woman (Hub City Press, 2013). This is a book of bad women, bad accidents, and bad news. Kelly has a gift for understatement and a voice that can speak unpleasant truths convincingly, in part because she lets the images speak for themselves:

A week later, Mother was white blonde again,

she came home with somebody named Pastor Arthur Ray,

he’d prayed with her, she said, though they smelled

of whiskey, his auburn toupee, crooked, tilted left.

And while its poems deal with such personal matters as heartbreak, infidelity, disease, childhood trauma, and substance abuse, Voodoo for the Other Woman doesn’t seem confessional, in part because Kelly spreads the book’s meditations on disillusion and desire across decades and personae, and in part because these poems maintain a cutting sense of humor. Kelly has a skill for sketching characters in a few details, as in “The Swannanoa Juvenile Detention Center for Girls”:

Next week, the Home Economics class will turn to cooking.

They are going to make chicken pot pie

with a fine golden crust. Jayne Ann says no green peas

are going in her pot pie. She hates goddamn peas.

In spite of the pain stitched through this book, the characters are handled with compassion, rather than venom, and the few moments of tenderness the book offers are more poignant for the destruction around them, gleaming like the broken glass at the conclusion of “Char’s Crossing”:

In the rearview mirror, the three-legged dog

wagged his entire body in farewell.

The acres of broken bottles winked out.

These poems are a requiem for the reckless passions of youth as well as an acknowledgement that childhood’s terrors and injustices persist into adulthood, as in “Dear Boys & Girls of the Playground,” where

Touching your thigh, you look around

for the rubber dodge ball, red and bouncy;

it could tear down the hall at any time.

Destruction often follows in desire’s wake in this poems. After the ecstatic groping there is always a vicious comedown, a severe hangover, sometimes paired with a literal hangover, as in “To Take a Vacation Alone”:

The hung-over mornings, when I wake at dawn,

panicked at the anonymous room, finally recognizing

the roll of surf, the open balcony doors, how the sea air

has seduced my sheets, reducing them to damp rags.

Gauze, perhaps, for a wound I have not even felt.

Cancer and life-threatening pregnancy loom in poems like “How to Prepare for Invasive Surgery” (“I would like to slip inside your jacket and be / the extra button stitched in the silk lining”). Kelly has a gift for striking juxtapositions, as in “Fear Comes Like  a Whistle, a Depot, the Train Itself”:

In the waiting room, I had thumbed through Cosmo-

“The Secret Parts of Your Body Which He Really Wants.”

Womb full of baseball tumors was not on the list.

The inanity of commercial culture in the face of profound personal suffering and loss is a recurring theme. Many of the topics covered are not the kind of thing advertisers want potential customers reading about next to their sales pitches, and Kelly’s book makes an argument for poetry as a place where they can be discussed honestly, with no concern for the sensibilities of advertisers. Like the “The Swannanoa Juvenile Detention Center for Girls,” poetry is a place where you can admit to hating “the goddamn peas.”And since many of the book’s topics, like uterine cancer and ectopic pregnancy, are “women’s issues,” Kelly could be said to be carving out a space for frank discussion of these topics ignored by the media at large. But Kelly’s book isn’t a feel-good celebration of mutual womanhood, either: when we meet the persona of the title poem, she’s putting a hex on a romantic rival, so that

When she steps off the curb,

her ankle may snap, or better yet,

the city bus rounding the curve …

The wisdom of Voodoo for the Other Woman seems hard won. These poems remind us of the uncertainty of our destinations and the unquantifiable value of tenderness in the midst of a collapsing world. In simple language, Kelly has achieved a complex tone that mixes humor, sadness, hope, rage, and resignation. It is a potent brew.

-- Jonathan Butler