Terese Mason Pierre’s Surface Area

Terese Mason Pierre’s debut poetry chapbook, Surface Area (Anstruther Press, 2019), marks the start of a writing career that already includes plenty of technical skill and a strong voice that is both poetic and controlled. The thirteen poems in this collection showcase Pierre’s talents for writing in the couplet form, as well as a pared-down narrative voice highlighted by a steady poetic rhythm. The poems are compressed but open, employing image, metaphor, and tension in compelling ways, and speak to the overall psychic state of the speaker. All of these poems are addressed to a beloved, presenting a romantic relationship that is complex, erotic, and at times, problematic. The speaker, who is young, perceptive, and mature, is honest in her feelings and observations as she engages in a push-pull relationship with her beloved, heightening romantic tension throughout the collection. She gets to the core of her own personal desires as she proclaims: “What I really wanted was / to see my reflection in you.”

“Lines” is a noteworthy poem for the way Pierre enacts a turn that shifts the power relations from the beloved to the speaker, and ends by establishing balance between them. Here are the first few couplets:

You know where you’re going,
but this city is unfamiliar to me.

Every story you tell has its own
highways and cul-de-sacs,

leading to laughs you cut short,
a brief peer over the hedge

to the green on the other side,
or a welcome overstayed

on purpose. It is irrational
to envy the time before I existed.

In this part of the poem, the beloved holds the dominant position. The speaker says, “You know where you’re going, / but this city is unfamiliar to me.” She addresses this situation by comparing the beloved’s stories to “highways and cul-de-sacs” which are engineered, standard forms of transportation and suburban living, “leading to laughs you cut short, / a brief peer over the hedge / to the green on the other side.” In these lines, control is a meticulous obsession heightened with “laughs you cut short.” However, doubt creeps in with the lines “a brief peer over the hedge / to the green on the other side,” which suggests that the predictability of control does not completely satisfy. The big turn of the poem occurs with the lines “It is irrational / to envy the time before I existed.” This is where the speaker inserts a painful truth, emphasizing the fact that this is really a poem about memory. The remaining couplets elaborate on this realization:

In the attic of your childhood home,
I see you in the orange glow

of a lack of someone to please.
I put my hand over yours

as you hold a photo. I do not
recognize any of the thousand words.

Readers are immediately brought into “the attic” of the beloved’s “childhood home,” which is still suburban in nature, but it is a space fused with intimacy, emotion, and vulnerability. Here, the speaker says, “I see you in the orange glow / of a lack of someone to please.” The speaker, in this space, is able to get to the source of the beloved’s true nature, which contains “a lack of someone to please.” She responds to this “lack” by offering physical affection: “I put my hand over yours.” When the beloved shows her a photo, the speaker does not “recognize any of the thousand words.” This is a powerful metaphorical moment because it solidifies the main argument of the poem: memories are in the past and the past is irrelevant. This is where the beloved has the most power, in the safety of memories. Since the speaker does not have access to those memories, they are rendered meaningless, and the beloved’s power is diminished, bringing them both to the same level, therefore equalizing them.

“True” is another exemplary poem for its use of erotic feeling that brims just beneath the surface of the couplets. The speaker begins: “All the lines on my body / point to you,” which is a straightforward, but intimate proclamation. She continues by saying “To rub your skin is to / rub a magic lamp, / letting you change my life / in three ways.” Here, the magic lamp takes on poignant power, as it is specific, erotic, and alluring. In these couplets, the speaker does not shy away from asking “Under which wing / would the wide world tuck me?” She also paints a vibrant picture of the beloved’s body and what that body represents to her on a deeper level:

Your arm was tattooed

and smelled like mint. I,
mimicking sleep, hoped

your own flesh would not
rid itself of art.

Sensory images such as the beloved’s tattooed arm and “mint” heighten the reading experience, but the speaker’s desire that her lover’s “flesh would not / rid itself of art,” captures an intense metaphorical moment where “flesh” and “art” connect on an intimate level. In the last part of the poem, the speaker gets to the core of the situation:

Third: I can’t pin down
the object of your desire, or

as you call it, hot respect—
the romantic tight truth.

I suspect something
within my cells,

in the lamina between
rain and saltwater spray.

You love to debate this,
to prove to me that

I can prove to myself
I know my name.

These lines are both erotic and playful; a cerebral game is being played between speaker and beloved. Phrases like “hot respect” and “the romantic tight truth” are descriptions that add new meaning to desire as a sexual experience. But the strongest tension of the poem happens where the speaker says, “You love to debate this, / to prove to me that / I can prove to myself / I know my name.” Words like “debate” and “prove” have intellectual connotations to them, but in this context, they take on erotic form, causing the speaker to “prove to myself / I know my name.” In this moment, she realizes what she has known all along: she is the object of desire.

Terese Mason Pierre’s Surface Area is a great introduction to the work of a poet who excels at technical skill and the ability to inhabit complex situations that involve intimacy, love, eroticism, and self-empowerment. In this chapbook, Pierre gives voice to a speaker that is honest and romantic, in command of her language and her feelings, but also devoted to a beloved who is difficult and vulnerable, but equally as honest and romantic. Readers will discover a poet who likes to venture into complicated emotional situations, who boldly proclaims: “Is it against the rules to / ask this many questions?” Pierre has proven that she is a master of the couplet form; it will be exciting to see how she applies her poetic skills in future collections.

December 2, 2019