Elizabeth Bradfield, Interpretive Work, Arktoi Books, 2008

Reviewed by Nicky Beer

[Review Guidelines]

The poems of Elizabeth Bradfield's Interpretive Work are significantly informed by her work as a naturalist, particularly—as the title suggests—in their interrogation of how the subjectivity of the human gaze shapes and distorts our perceptions of "nature" and "the natural." There is something of the strategy, if not the style, of Marianne Moore here, in the way that this gaze, when directed outwards toward the natural subject, inevitably boomerangs back to remark upon the desires and motivations of the human observer, as with the speaker who is "searching for a response unlayered, genuine" in "Fireflies First Seen at Age Thirty," or with the bottlenose dolphin in "Triangulation" who is "Predator, cavorter, fierce occupant / of a world designed to drown. [...] not  known, / after all, through any comforting thrum." But unlike Moore's sometimes chilly erudition, these poems have a great sense of invitation to them. Bradfield's learned, lyrical approach to the scientific subject is reminiscent of the work of Linda Bierds, and certainly a poem like "Love Song of the Transgeneticist" is a lucid argument for why all research laboratories should keep at least one poet on staff for P.R. purposes. Here we find a marriage of the rigorous focus of the scientific imagination and the visionary scope of the poetic imagination:

O, our shifting fractal views of what is beautiful—
aqueduct, thresher, cesarean, quark, heart valve,
Tupperware, pygmy goat, microchip, cul-de-sac—
this silk woven from a loose helix we all share, these
small fingers of glass, my script naming each one,
the notebook heavy in my lab coat pocket.

     Bradfield frequently focuses science and poetry's shared obsessions with nomenclature and aesthetics in poems such as "Nonnative Invasive," "Splitters & Joiners," and "Concerning the Proper Term for a Whale Exhaling." This fascination with naming necessarily leads to one of the book's recurring thematic questions: what do we really mean when we say nature and natural? As we traffic in these poems across the porous borders of human and nonhuman life, observing how each sphere is marked by its own patterns of mating, migration, and adaptation, we're confronted with what the repercussions of the concept "natural" are for human sexuality. Some of the most moving poems in Interpretive Work include narratives in which lesbian speakers and characters must negotiate life in a largely hetero-dominated world, sometimes victoriously breaching the surface, sometimes obliged to exist in a sub rosa sphere of evasion and uncertainty: "We didn't admit // to each other that we waited for the spray paint, / the busted taillights.  Worse, we were ready / to understand..." ("Remodeling") And yet there is nothing didactic in these poems—the speakers are multifarious, alternately piqued, mournful, quizzical, comic, celebratory, and sexy as they remark upon the camouflages and armor that characterize the lives they live. There's often a palpable sense of claiming, too, as the speakers classify: "Neighbor, / if you put on the glasses provided / with this poem, the neon / over our garage will be hard to miss." ("Now You See Me") In the playful "Butch Poem 2: Monstified," a woman in a "rubber velociraptor / mask" becomes the incarnation of "Dykezilla," a potent metaphor of the way in which the absurdity of drag simultaneously conceals and exposes both the performer and audience. 
     Despite Bradfield's aforementioned desire for "unlayered" meaning, she continually delights in exploring the world's layers and facets. As she observes in "Specimen," "How little we would see were it not / for context, or, more specifically, things / out of context," concluding with a moment of Rilkean revelation, "You've never seen the body so clearly articulated, / so clearly pressed against its confines. Have I wanted enough from this world?" As the inaugural publication of Arktoi Books, an imprint of Red Hen Press devoted to the work of lesbian writers, Interpretive Work is an auspicious debut for both the imprint and its author, a testament to poetry's marvelous capacity to decontextualize human life into moments of resounding insight.