Pretty Little Rooms
by Katie Chaple
Press 53, $12.00 paperback, 80 pp.
Reading and rereading Pretty Little Rooms, I must say it’s a sly book. These poems lured me in with a placid surface, and as soon as I came close, they socked me in the mouth. And it felt good. Chaple has a way of leading us in with understated, unintimidating scenes and diction, only to follow up with first lines that either mesmerized me with a sense of mystery or delighted me and won me over on the spot. The titular poem “Pretty Little Rooms” was one of many that won their reader in the first line. The title is innocuous, but it’s paired with this ominous epigraph: “The remains of who was thought to be the Renaissance poet Francesco Petrarch are instead those of two different people, DNA tests have confirmed.” Then comes a whopper of a first line, “The skull was unexpected, a surprise in the pink marble tomb.” A surprise skull? A pink marble tomb? What a setting!
Chaple though, is very upfront with her love of mysteries. In her poem “The Invisible Intruder” she leads by confessing:
I always did want to be Nancy Drew—
think, to be that perfect girl with perfect titian hair,
the perfect powder-blue convertible,
to have two trust-worthy (yet not-quite-as-pretty) friends.
In this poem, Chaple has created the same type of mystery as “Pretty Little Rooms,” except here she borrows an ominous Nancy Drew title and pairs it with a perfect-seeming life. Despite this initial odd calm, the title pays off, as by the end of the poem, the speaker challenges us to “tell me she is happy with her life.” What happens in-between is vivid, well-researched, tangible, and terrifying. Some of these poems are absolutely unsettling, and I would sometimes have to pause for a moment to catch my breath, but I never wanted to stop reading. The six sections help break up the book, and allow for the occasional mental stretch to avoid fatigue from the powerful content.
The range of these poems is wonderful as well, making it easier to handle the power of the poems and their emotional intensity. Poems like “Charlie Chaplin Enters a Charlie Chaplin Look-Alike Contest” and “Life Is Not a Porno” lead in with the single-line, punch-line, stanzas of “And comes in third,” and “Because nothing would get done. Ever.” These poems have elements of the absurd, but skewer their subjects. They are not light and will not be easily forgotten, but they do contrast some of the much more intimate poems such as “To a Child Not Conceived” or “Saving Eve” or “A Drowning” where family becomes a subject of gentle, lyrical meditation. Chaple can hit that register too.
Finally, I’d be doing Pretty Little Rooms a disservice if I didn’t mention the array of persona poems and character studies. We get to watch Madame Jeanne Du Barry rise to royal rank and lose her head in a wonderful epistolary section, learn about “The Child Actor” and visit comedian Del Close on his deathbed. Oftentimes we get to participate in the action in poems like “You and she want to drive all night” or the opening poem “My Epicurean Curse” wherein the speaker leaves “you,” but also leaves behind with a feast (literally and also in a very tactile, descriptive manner), so that “for you / monkfish will never be the same.” In “Monologue of an Assassin” the speaker obliterates her target, saying:
You are not sound, you are a held breath,
you are not wave, or shine,
you are not velvet, you are not,
you are not, you are not anything
but the extension of my arm.
Folks, she might be right. I physically felt her control in these poems. This is a commanding debut from Chaple.