Oneiromance (an epithalamion)
By Kathleen Rooney
(Chicago: Switchback Books, 2008).
59 pages. Paperback:
$14.00, ISBN # 978-0978617233.
Reviewed by Chella Courington
Kathleen Rooney’s Oneiromance (an epithalamion), winner of the 2007 Gatewood Prize awarded by Switchback Books, refashions the epithalamion, or wedding poem, for twenty-first-century readers. Though there is no fixed form for the epithalamion, which comes from the ancient Greek word meaning “upon the bridal chamber,” the poem celebrates marriage and was sung by a chorus of boys and girls outside the honeymooners’ bedroom. Re-imagining the form, Rooney frames these nuptial poems in dreams (“eneiro” is Greek for “dream”), a site appropriate to the anxiety and mixed emotions of marriage—the contradictory longing for union and freedom, the transgressive urge prompted by convention.
Coupling informs both the shape and content of Oneiromance (an epithalamion). Out of the thirty-one poems included here, eighteen are in couplets. The dreams take place in Brazil and Illinois and alternate between the bride’s view and the groom’s. While the bridal couple share experiences, they also travel independently of one another but with a “sidekick.” The bride, Kathy, travels with her sister Beth, who is engaged to Nick, as the groom, Martin, travels with Nick. The coupling and re-coupling conceit is the doppelganger who haunts the hero or heroine in the quest for love. S/he longs to share the passion for living with someone s/he loves yet fears losing that passion by formalizing the love. Anticipating their first anniversary, the couple vacations at Niagara Falls, the “Honeymoon Capitol.” The bride notes in an elegiac tone: “We’ll never fornicate again. So it goes.”
Animal totems become symbols of sexual abandon, control and restriction throughout the collection. When Kathy and Beth are walking to the island of Valdares, they see “ cocks throw their crows / from yard to dirty yard.” On their way to the church of Our Lady of Rocio, they see “dogs copulating, / lined up three thick, / behind a mangy bitch.” These glimpses raise the question: to what extent does heterosexual partnership mean domination and sex at the expense of the female? Rooney’s male personae, Martin and Nick, also experience similar fears of self-extinction and control. In one dream, when mayflies invade an outdoor reception, the bride’s view of the insect haunts the male persona: “ Say, did you know / the sole function of the adult is reproduction? / Their mouths are vestigial. Their guts filled / with air. Mayflies have no need for butts.” Martin feels the threat of spousal authority and sexual objectification as much as Kathy, disturbed by how marriage may possibly change their relationship.
Love and death coexist in a flurry of nuptial rituals: the bride’s spa day, the religious ceremony and reception, the honeymoon at Iguacu, the civil service at City Hall, and the anniversary at Niagara Falls. Finding the escaped fiancée at a “one-stop beauty shop” in Brazil, the groom persona likens her body treatment to “a cadaver at the hands / of a mortician.” At Our Lady of Rocio during the marriage ceremony, someone from the audience shouts: “May you love always. May you not die alone.” At the Justice of the Peace, the bride says “there’s a gun at my back / Your hand.” With this life/death negotiation called marriage comes the risk of narrowing choice, limiting one’s engagement with the world. The decision is no longer based on the individual but on the wedded couple. Her new shoes are the shirt he cannot buy. His round of golf erases her afternoon of bookstores and cafes. They exert mutual claims on each other.
Reading Kathleen Rooney’s Oneiromance (an epithalamion) is a serious and lighthearted activity that invites us to rethink marriage and poetic form. By appropriating the classical epithalamion and turning it into a marriage song that addresses questions around individuation and union in the twenty-first century, Rooney reflects what Adrienne Rich suggested thirty-eight years ago: “Re-vision—the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction—is for women more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival.” Certainly for those considering matrimony, Rooney’s collection offers poetic insight. Like poetry, marriage is a difficult and risky endeavor. — Chella Courington
With a Ph.D. in British and American Literature and an M.F.A. in Poetry, I teach at Santa Barbara City College. My recent poetry appears or is forthcoming in Gargoyle Magazine, wicked alice, Iguana Review, Pirene’s Fountain, and Mademoiselle’s Fingertips. My chapbook, Paper Covers Rock, was first runner-up in the Qarrtsiluni Chapbook Competition 2009: http://qarrtsiluni.com.
Chella on Gender: Much of my creative and critical work is woman-centered. The daughter of a talented mother whose options were confined, I grew up in rebellion against gender expectations, refusing to learn how to cook or sew, and continue to avoid all educational opportunities in home economics.