Review: Katharine Rauk’s Basil

It’s easy to see why Black Lawrence Press selected Katharine Rauk’s Basil as a finalist in the Black River Chapbook Competition. For a book of 32 pages, Rauk writes with truly impressive variety and breadth. She experiments with a range of forms, from prose poems to short meditations, and incorporates subjects as varied as the number of spiders one is likely to swallow while sleeping to Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Monkey. These diverse poems fit together in part because of their sonic density, marked by frequent repetition and internal rhyme.

In addition, all of her poems, regardless of length or style, rely on the strength of careful, poignant images. As a reader, I trust that Rauk is steering me towards things of beauty, in part because her poems move between these images with little interruption. Although the poems are filled with confidently surreal happenings, the strangeness itself never becomes the focus of the poem—it remains on the clarity of the image. For example, one memorable poem describes a fever as the feeling of a heron sitting on the speaker’s chest. In another, the speaker opens a window to encounter “a sunlight of bees.”

Some of the most interesting poems come when Rauk is in direct conversation with science and art. Her poems imagine the implications of statistics in fascinating ways—what is the effect of living near a high-voltage power line on my teacups? what happens when you blend folk narrative with a field guide on toads? Several poems respond to queries from Neruda’s Book of Questions in kind, posing additional questions which layer rich images on the original. In the ekphrastic poem “Self-Portrait with Monkey,” Rauk navigates the difficulty of possession in relationships by acknowledging the independence of her husband relative to Kahlo’s monkey. And yet, this scene is tinged with the sadness of this perpetual loss: “That’s why/ my womb keeps/ erasing itself.”

As a feminist reader, I am especially interested in this kind of representation of women in Basil. Rauk’s poems often focus on women’s bodies and relationships, presenting a range of images and power dynamics. Their bodies are often inhabited by the same surrealism as Rauk’s landscapes.  For example, beetles eating wood are compared to the haunting “channels inside a woman’s body/ where even music gets lost.” Another woman is preoccupied with perpetually sweeping a field of snow inside her own body in “What She Knows.” These images of bodily impossibility create a sense of mystery around these women, even for the women themselves.

This allure is further highlighted in the beautiful poem “The Average Person Swallows Four Spiders Per Year While Sleeping,” in which a woman dreams herself as a vengeful, ancient Chinese empress who kills her mates, as spiders do. The actions of her female speakers, as in this poem, are often inspired by relationships with men; another collects light bulbs as an escape from tedium, because “my boyfriend worked the night shift. I got bored.” In the title poem, “Basil,” a different complication is presented by the speaker, who ponders the nature of her relationship with an abusive lover but takes pride in the fact that he has never managed to consume her. Rauk provokes interesting questions by describing the obsession of another speaker who conflates sexual and religious devotion, waiting for “the suitor/ who would sate her” in “The Rapture.” As with form, Rauk presents a range of options for female characters, which allows the reader to examine diverse experiences.

Through these images and ideas, Basil creates a world that is timeless not in the sense of reliance on tradition, but in the sense that the book values that which is constant over time—beauty in a variety of forms and images, love, and nature. I look forward to reading more of Katharine Rauk’s work, and I would be thrilled to see what she does with a longer manuscript.

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