Gloss by Rebecca Hazelton
University of Wisconsin Press, February 2019
104 pages / Amazon
Gloss ventures darker than Rebecca Hazelton’s previous work. Dark as in sultry, of course—a trademark of her writing—but dark also as in the intoxication of a toxic relationship, the searchlight gaze for the lover’s flaw after first kiss.
The poems are blunt in the realities they present, unique in their sadness. The work reads easily and leaves a mark in the mind. It is Hazelton’s best yet, and required reading for anyone interested in love, heartache, and the versions of sensuality that hardly ever get told.
In Gloss, the flaws of the love are occasionally absent, but usually revealed in a final, twisting line that shames the reader for believing the fairy tale ever. Like in, “Animals at Play,” a couple brings their sexuality into public display, adopt personae, roles, and everything is beautiful and great until the final lines, “Let’s pretend to be with other people / until we’re with other people.” And once you read that, you’re forced to reread it all, search for the early flaws, the early signs of trouble—much like an actual lover looking back on an actual break up.
Other times, the poems are hard up from the beginning, like the haunting, “Do Not Want.” It’s a list poem of sorts, an accounting of a lover and a love not wanted anymore, even if some of it was pleasurable in the moment. When does protective become overprotective, or an intoxicating love turn actually toxic? For example,
What a man felt in his fist when another man
fell to his knees
and the please of that sickening thump
Why is the sickening thump so pleasing? The pain of others shouldn’t be pleasing—but sometimes, it is. Sometimes your own pain is pleasing, like the bruises and marks left by the lover on the speaker, along with the “satisfaction in harm for the asking.” It‘s unclear just how much of the pain is asked for, and that leaves us, the reader, as uncomfortable and unsure as the speaker.
The poem gets darker when a different man comes to the neighborhood looking for a woman, and everyone’s doorbells are ringing, dogs barking, and the speaker takes this moment to reflect on her lover,
Because I was fearful of the man
of her fear of the fear that I’d be her
if you were a different man
which eventually you were.
The fear here is real, and remarkable to see presented so clearly, so banal. And the stark sadness (of this all too common reality) sets Gloss apart from Hazelton’s previous work. They are real love poems, real moments, real truths that can be difficult to write about.
To call these poems raw would imply they’re unfinished, unpolished, but that’s what’s so unique about the raw sensuality within them: the sex comes quietly, matter-of-factly, as simply as a grackle in a nature poem. It doesn’t feel put upon.
Of course, before you buy this book, I must caution that it’s hard to read Hazelton in public without blushing, with lines like, “your name pressed to my thigh / like a curling iron,” and “when I’m worn out / from rough use, / I submit to a stitch // along my backside.”
And it’s nice to see the so-called deviant forms of lovemaking presented with passion and without judgment: multiple partners, sometimes simultaneously, and the feelings that come from that, rough sex, sex with accoutrement. These deserve their own romantic gaze, and Hazelton provides it without judgment.