The Porpoise in the Pink Alcove (Kathi Wolfe)

Reviewed by Sheila Black

I have known Kathi Wolfe a long time and been privileged to call her a friend; I’ve also seen her poems over many years—in various stages—which I know might make it hard for me to be objective. I approached reading her new manuscript Porpoise in the Pink Alcove, 2024 winner of the William Meredith Book Award for Poetry, as much as possible as if I knew nothing about Kathi Wolfe or her work to see what the poems would bring me. Quite frankly, I was blown away.

Porpoise in the Pink Alcove is a kind of autobiography in verse, leading us through Wolfe’s childhood as a blind queer kid in 1960s New Jersey; growing up, coming out and finding love with her wife, Ann; and then losing her wife to cancer. Within this arc, Porpoise in the Pink Alcove (that title alone!) explores queer and disability identity and justice, celebrates her abiding love for popular culture, and opens us to the role fantasy and imagination play in reconciling us to the terms of our lives.

Here, to start us off, is the shortest poem in the book:

Knock, Knock! Who’s there?
It’s me, God,
looking for my keys.

While this poem is by no means utterly characteristic in subject matter or form, it illustrates a few things that distinguish Kathi Wolfe’s poems: 1) they are direct; 2) they are witty; 3) they are deeply serious despite their (frequently mordant) humor; and also—and perhaps most importantly—4) they possess charm.

In a 2015 essay entitled “Charm,” poet Marianne Boruch observes “It’s dangerous!” meaning charm itself. Boruch distinguishes between the idea of charm in its historical meaning of “spell” or “enchantment” and its more modern sense of “irresistible, surprising, often read as good for you, designed to win over, a sweet nature shrewdly projecting confidence and concern, engineered to put the world and self at ease” (p. 128, emphasis in original). She also notes the often-overlooked truth that charm is frequently an essential ingredient to art that sings or soars, writing:

“In a more general way, [charm is] simply fear lurking behind most situations, perhaps. But press, and that fear could vanish. The world is hard but might click into easy. It is dodgy. You can’t predict a memorable anything. Thus, the lyric double-take explosive in a lot of poems.

Which is charm. There’s no learning it because its fear and its pleasure must take by surprise. And if a breakneck not-quite harmony comes of all this, you never quite forget that jumpy thing still in your side vision, slight afterimage of panic.” (p. 130, emphases in original)

Boruch’s argument is that charm arises out of a vital mixture of pain and pleasure—it acknowledges that the world is cruel and even desperate, but never quite gives into that grim vision; it offers instead the redemptive and enlivening experience of pleasure being laid alongside pain—of a speaker fueled by ongoing curiosity and delight even at the strangeness or harshness of the world. Boruch notes that those who are charming generally possess a quality of ongoing curiosity or interest outside the self.

Quoting from a manual on charm (“Margey Wilson’s Complete Book of Charm from the early 1940s”), Boruch says:

“Here are two gems…first, practical and specific: “Whenever a conversation seems to grow dull, throw in…contrast…. which acts like a yeast in a dough…often this brings on a laugh…and will gain [you] the reputation of a wit.” And second: ‘You must have at least two interests which apparently take your mind altogether off yourself. One must be other people.’” (p. 129)

This seems a kind of blueprint for how Kathi Wolfe’s poems in Porpoise in the Pink Alcove function for the reader, combining marvelous inventiveness—an antic quality, even—with something of the stillness beneath or apprehension of the ways in which life is not easy or kind and people all over suffer it in different ways. Wolfe writes of these phenomena in a tender, knowing way, leavened by her razor-sharp wit and deep, almost wondering sense of the sheer strangeness of it all.

Take for example these stanzas from the poem “Papaya”—one of my many favorites in the book. Wolfe is contemplating her own death:

I am wondering
if the lights on Broadway
will dim for a moment
in homage to my news

I am wondering
if I will create
an ars poetica
Of braille,
Seeing-Eye dogs,
stares, averted eyes;
if I will sing new songs
with Homer and Milton

Or will I dwell in
where you
don’t die,
but feel
as if you should.
I only know,
in Papaya King
on 86th and Third,
inhaling onions and mustard,
there will always be you,
hot dogs and papaya.

The poem is both imaginative and emotive. Note the assured movement between grandeur and the grit of everyday, the humor and light that comes into what is also a serious precis of mortality as well as a swooping view of disability history and outsiderness. These contrasts—like beating egg whites to form a souffle—give the work a kind of magical lightness, which is nothing like triviality but appears rather as a sort of divine wisdom: the ability to see clearly without being ground down.

Wolfe’s vulnerable subject matter—what it is like to be a disabled child in an abled world, what it is like to feel overlooked or unloved, what it is like to find a rare love and have it taken from you—set alongside her buoyant imagination results in  poems that are multi-layered, startling, and relatable, poems that possess in abundance the mysterious quality of charm, of which Boruch writes:

“In fact, the shape of charm could be the shape of poetry as it arrives in our heads and moves down the page. A) Say what? B) Okay, okay, it’s just that…C) What? That three-part structure makes other acrobatic stunts orderly and eternal: morning, noon, and night forever taking turns in the sky, or the classic “three acts” screenwriters love. The sound of questions, of exploration and assertion, of knowing nothing then pausing into what next? Push me, pull me and between that, the hold this of poems while I fiddle over here for a while or a minute. Ignore that man behind the curtain!—which itself equals charm. And then that thing you didn’t know you already knew, there, from the start.” (p. 130, emphases in original)

Few poets possess this quality; fewer still can be charming without to some degree compromising their sincerity through an excess of craft. Somewhere Billy Collins must be gnashing his teeth in envy because Wolfe with her queer and disabled consciousness somehow is able to be wonderfully witty without ever becoming slick or self-protecting. Her wit is sharp yet also sincere and vulnerable.

For example, in “A Poem About Nothing,” watching Seinfeld becomes a pathway into considering mortality and loss:

              Who cares if Jerry wears
a puffy shirt.  If he gets his rye bread.  If Elaine

does her nutty dance?  George gets a date?
If Kramer does yet another pratfall?

That was before the mysterious bleeding,
the bruises on your legs.  Your tango

with pain…

And in “This is Not a Nursery Rhyme,”  Wolfe writes of being a bullied queer little girl in suburban New Jersey looking up at the stars:

These stars weren’t little
diamonds in the sky, for
coiffed, perfumed ladies
gazing upwards to their
genteel heavens. They
were diamonds in the rough,
ready to take on the tormentors
with their dyke slant rhyme ammo.

These rough diamond stars tell us everything about Wolfe’s aesthetic. And, in the charm department, who could resist that last phrase: “dyke slant rhyme ammo,” which is such a pleasure just to say? From resistance and self-discovery to the quiet shores of heartbreak, Kathi Wolfe alerts us at every turn to the spangled unsettled exhilaration of being alive.

Deeply rooted in place and time—the poems evoke with such clarity East Coast cities, greasy diners, being in a darkened cinema watching Rita Hayworth or Katherine Hepburn command the screen, hearing a few bars of Frank Sinatra as her father croons to her dying mother—Kathi Wolfe captures the variegated surfaces of the world while showing us how these open, in turn, to the even more variegated interior spaces of memory and fantasy.

I can only say—and not just as Kathi Wolfe’s friend—read this book. The poems in it will charm you and make you feel the full, slightly subversive and, yes, dangerous glory of living life in all its badassery. They also will also inspire you to grasp anew the urgency of the battle for disability, LGBTQIA+, BIPOC, and all human rights, especially in these divisive and difficult times. These deeply human poems quite simply bring us into a more feeling sense of the world by reminding us of what imagination is and can do. In Boruch’s words:

A dark glimpse is charm’s hook and charm’s magnet. Because only the secret life will last, the ache for that and its forbidden conversation behind a door. Oh, eternal outsider! —that would be me, and you, too. (p. 131)

Writing compelling autobiographical lyric is never easy—one can so easily become rooted in stories told in ways we are all too familiar with. Our greater poets always give us something more: a means of energizing experience so that we as readers feel as if we are living twice over, not only revisiting our own pasts but charged in some mysterious way into fresh ways of feeling and  entering our lives—a magical prism that allows us to perceive with greater engagement and clarity. The providing of such a prism in all its rainbow glory is the great gift of this remarkable (and entertaining!) collection.

Quoted material: Marianne Boruch, “Charm,” The Massachusetts Review, Vol. 57, Issue 1, Fall 2015.

Title: Porpoise in the Pink Alcove
Author: Kathi Wolfe
Publisher: Forest Woods Media Productions
Date: 2023

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About the Reviewer

Sheila Black is the author of five poetry collections—most recently, Radium Dream (Salmon Poetry, Ireland). Poems have appeared in Poetry, The Nation, The New York Times, and elsewhere. She is a co-editor of Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability (Cinco Puntos Press, 2011). She lives in San Antonio, Texas and Tempe, Arizona where she works as assistant director of the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing at ASU.