Someplace Like This
by Renee Ashley.
The Permanent Press © 2003 cloth 192 pages
If there’s anything better than a good novel it’s a good novel written by a poet. Renee Ashley is well known in American letters for her collections of poems and all of these books I’d read. It was with more than a little curiosity then, that I opened Someplace Like This to see how art forms cross boundaries.
On the title page the book is described 1. Married Women – Fiction 2. Female Friendship – Fiction, and I think marketing has its nomenclature but I also think it’s by necessity (expediency, brevity) usually wrong.
There are those aspects to this work, female, friendship – But the true shape of these almost 200 pages is that of some very crucial existential matters. The philosophical underpinning of the piece is what makes this book notches above “woman lost unto herself.” It does, in fact, bring into play substantial questions about how we go on in life day after day, even when all our appetites are satisfied, our needs met and there are no grenades going off in the back yard.
In Someplace Like This Dore Dover begins the grand adventure of marriage (again) (the same marriage) by moving houses – selling the old – and going to inhabit the couple’s beach house full time – a new start – shiny pans hung in a line – plaid table cloth – curtains with creases still in. It is no surprise that the interior world of Dore Dover will take more than that. She tackles housewifery anew and it’s all too easy, the bread rises first try – the jam is good, if a little thin. Oddly enough all this is interesting for the reading is silky smooth, because Ashley is a superb craftsman. Each sentence is combed and curried and set in juxtaposition to the one before and the one after. A poet’s use of line. There are no dense passages of overgrown verbiage to fight through to get to the breathing on the page. This is provided for us by a writer who knows how to expand and compress thought and who has a treasure box of words for her use, from years of acquaintanceship. The physical reading of these pages is purely sensual.
And Renee Ashley’s funny. Dore begins her “to do” list with “…1. Trim thighs. It’s a good start. It’s not like I can just take a knife and carve off the excess… How to get to the thighs:
A. Diet “ …
And so it goes, a list for life, a grocery list, a liquor list, and a Betty Crocker test kitchen list. Throughout, Dore Dover is the antihero. She, Chaplinesque, in the world of spiritual well being, can do little more to make another happy than put on a clown face and roll in the grass with her niece.
But is our hero pathetic? No. Because it is the line beneath the line that separates Ashley’s work from others. We are let in on a woman’s every thought, the craving, the struggle, the wish, the yearning, the longing, the hope and the fall from hope. And this is a great gift to give a reader.
The story line moves back and forth across time, the novelist’s expertise executed by the poet’s grace. We find the death of a child, a lost marriage, and the emotional rubble on which a life is established. This is a real story with a plot that knows how to get next to you, and then keep going.
But it is the language I love. It is the naming of things, the poet’s indentation like a thumbprint that turns the world from just a world to a luminous place we want to be.
From a list of “chocolate-chocolate chip, two frozen mint patties, half a dozen frozen Oreos --- mint patties …” we sail into a thought and then smack to “But the moon has already changed.” And the novelist becomes the same person who writes of the moon’s “slice pinioned against the black sky…” and we are in good hands, the place we feel best, where a book becomes more than a book. The poet/author, unselfconsciously and without even trying, has created a work of literature. What we have here is a blend of popular culture and elite art.
Only once in the book did I feel the writer dwelled too long on a rumination of the past beyond what the story needed; but there is precious little self indulgence in this first novel. Prose is where we escape the claustrophobia of the poetic line. Prose can also be a place we take enormous liberties. Renee Ashley does not breach her license for freedom. This lyric narrative will satisfy all readers. I can see the film played by Annette Bening but I can see the book read by other poets.