The Contortions
By Nicole Mauro
Dusie Press, 2009
Review by Emily Hendren

As the title of the book describes, Nicole Mauro’s collection of poems in five parts takes on unexpected form after form, recreating voice and style throughout. Each section exists fully independently and wholly dependently on the sections surrounding it, and each demonstrates Mauro’s astonishing manipulation of the English language. Sex, psychosis, kiwis, foreign language, and more. The Contortions does not disappoint.


The book kicks off with an introductory section consisting of only one poem followed by two quotations: one from Sigmund Freud, one from Emily Dickinson. The sole poem, the namesake of the section title, captures the essence and core of what follows in the book. It is body, language, verticality, power, and intelligence.

The Contortions

The second section of the book explores both written and visual art through poems and corresponding ink blots. The ten poems and images in this section, although married in pairs, exist beautifully as independent works. Themes of isolation, self-discovery, sexuality, and science add depth to this series of highly intellectual poems. The reader feels a sense of psychosis, of spinning and uncertainty in the way the words fall down the page in sputtering streams of thoughts as they come, oftentimes ignoring traditional sentence structure and punctuation. Mauro does a nice job of using vertical space to strengthen the sense of “offness” in the narrator; nothing about these poems feels fully coherent or sane; however, they do feel both personal and conversational, as if the reader is a fly on the wall during a session of therapy, or a secret agent granted entrance into the thoughts of a personal diary.

Mauro’s excellent control of the English language takes center stage here as she uses words to bolster the character of her narrator and the message of the poems. In the poem VI the narrator asks, “O why, / goes the mind, / do I prestidigitate anachronicstic / visages, only to, in reverse / expectation of expectation, / abstain from self- / flagellating / the creations I’ve made / of the creamy forsake of those images?” Later, in the poem IX the narrator states, “On the sill, / gout / of sun-fed / botanicals; facile insectarium / things…”

Jackdaws Love My Big Sphinx of Quartz

The title of this section, an English pangram that uses all letters of the English alphabet, sets up the following poems’ function and intention with playful thoughtfulness. The poems that fill this section, titled with the names of languages from around the world and the word “Pangram,” appear in alphabetical order and demonstrate Mauro’s expert handle on and her love of language. Whether directly quoting translated pangrams, or seeking inspiration from the linguistically diverse letters and words, each poem roots itself in the idea of communication as a means to existence. Pangram-related words ranging from squeaking armchairs to quasi-singing choirs and from vegetables to ham, latex, and kiwis juxtapose more serious topics like sexual identity, doping, and love.

Throughout the section, as seems to be the norm with Nicole Mauro, the author stuns her reader with beautiful sentences and final lines. The closing of "Hebrew Pangram reads": “…we drink / our drinks, and you dream / your dreams. So many things / we soil we / don’t mean to. And that’s why a bed / needs a sheet.” Perhaps the most poignant poem in this section overflowing with international language is the final poem, "Pangram of Unknown Origin." Mauro captures the essence of space, distance, and longing for another with intelligence and acuteness. The suggestion that love might be the ultimate, overseeing language of the earth resonates and adds unification to the section of text that might otherwise appear disconnected by division of language and culture.

Dispatch (with Marci Nelligan)

The fourth section of the book tells a lively, sexually vibrant narrative in eighteen parts. Words, topics of discussion, and themes from earlier parts pop up again in later sections of text, adding momentum to the narrative. Along with strengthening the narrative, the second appearance of specific words and phrases like “vessels,” “whiteout,” chalk outlines, “Connecticut,” and plants provides new meaning for, and shows off the functionality of, the word. The theme that connects the short eighteen snippets of poetry (other than plainly saying “sex”) is anatomical duality—male and female, desire versus repulsion, thought versus action—and the approach to broaching the gap between. Mauro and Nelligan’s collaboration follows the previous three sections’ tone and remains playful and alarmingly smart.

The Ending of Days

The fifth and final section of the book is perhaps the most playful, and arguably the most indirect in language and meaning. Mauro returns to ekphrastic poetry, but this time rather than commentating on and seeking inspiration from ink blots, she responds to soap opera titles and header texts. For example, the first of the soap opera headers and response poems begins: “ALL MY CHILDREN—Erica learns that her face may be scarred for life and she’ll be unable to model again. Vanessa lays a guilt trip on David for causing Erica’s Accident. Tad suspects that Braden and Ryan are hiding a secret.” The prose poems in response find a home in language and tones that are far from the over-dramatized world of soap operas. Is Mauro seeking to add humility to the glossy-eyed, over-makeupped day-time actors? Is she ratifying the soap opera as a form of art? As on par with the rest of the book, she leaves these questions unanswered for the reader to explore and interpret independently.

The Contortions stands as a firm exhibition of Mauro’s knowledge of the human body’s physicality and mental and linguistic capacities. She plays with words to uncover their full potential and purpose in language and poetry, and she puts them to use telling stories and asking questions. If ever writing doesn’t work out for Nicole Mauro, I’d recommend she take up a career in medicine, psychiatry, or sex therapy, though I have a strong feeling she has found a place to call her forever home in poetry.

© Emily Hendren, 2011