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Partial Genius by Mary Biddinger
August 2019. Black Lawrence Press, 84 pages.
Reviewed by Beth McDermott


Mary Biddinger’s sixth collection of poetry, Partial Genius, is infused with all things French: the Revolution, the prose poem, and the architecture—categories that call to mind the radical heights achieved by poets and artists who refused to acquiesce to social norms in favor of revolutionary acts. In other words, artists who have been the exception, who have snuck out the back door despite how everyone else falls into step. 


“In the future all my friends would be painting the same fake sunflower and calling it art,” Biddinger writes, “while I continued waving from atop my pile of deconstructed charcoal kestrels” (5). In prose poems on the cusp of first-person narrative, Biddinger’s speakers end up swerving or jumping ship. They wind, in the way that genius often does, but not without stopping at a bar, or the urgent care, or even a library carrel. In fact, the lyric speakers of Partial Genius are so multifaceted that any trace of that initial storytelling impulse is thwarted by how the language turns: 


The best part of figure skating was getting cut. Not by an errant 

skate, but by the cruel rim of sequins on every elastic opening. 

Even now, if somebody utters the word footloose I’m a bodice of 

thorns. My back covered with shimmery polyester bologna. 

Something stirring the confines of my braided hair. (10)


Here, the sixth and final block of “Some Truths” begins as though a story is about to be told. However, even in these dense prose blocks, the sentences carry a vague but crucial relationship to the poetic line in the sense of how information unfolds but doesn’t narratively progress. The violence of the speaker’s costuming may be less than what we expected; however, it’s enough to stir the “confines” of her braided hair. 


Whether a christening chain, an oversized watch or a thigh tattoo that reads Au Courant, the poems in Partial Genius are littered with images of constraint and the restlessness that results: “People talk about how high school was the highlight of their existence. For me, it was like being held captive in an enormous sock drawer, with only a pack of matches for entertainment” (15). The curious thing is how Biddinger’s poems themselves seem to embody the temptation of matches as one’s sole prospect for entertainment with “temptation” carrying its theological resonance. What does one do with Biddinger’s references to Catholicism in a collection of poems so empathetic to the revolutionary’s plight?


Mid-sixties central Illinois, the biggest conflict in town 

a battle between grocery chains. The man who would eventually 

destroy me stood beside a green sedan and breathed a body full of 

the local factories before driving into soy fields. (28) 


We don’t know who the man is, or whether he and his green sedan are more or less evidence for the banality of this Midwestern town; yet, “destroy” is a powerful word choice, one that resonates for the revolutionary who stands atop a serpent or worships a god not universally recognized. “I was a small bundle of plans,” Biddinger writes. “I was a map slipped under a stranger’s door” (29). 

 

Beth McDermott is a writer in the southwest suburbs of Chicago. Her chapbook, How to Leave a Farmhouse, was published by Porkbelly Press. Recent poetry, reviews and criticism appear in Kenyon Review Online, Tupelo Quarterly, and The Trumpeter. She is currently an Associate Editor with RHINO. Beth holds degrees from Hope College, Purdue University, and the University of Illinois at Chicago. She teaches creative writing and literature at the University of St. Francis in Joliet, IL.