Lucinda Watson's THE FAVORITE Gets Fantastic Reviews from THE COLUMBIA DAILY TRIBUNE's Aarik Danielsen, and from KIRKUS

Poet sifts strange, difficult memories in search for clarity

By This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. The Columbia Daily Tribune
Posted at 11:14 AM, October 2, 2020

The first scene in Lucinda Watson’s The Favorite arrests the reader.

“Road Trip” zooms in on that all-American pursuit – pointing your motor miracle toward a change of scenery and people who exist outside your little corner of the world. And yet Watson extracts all the romance from the moment with her opening lines:

We are all naked in the backseat

of a 1957 Plymouth station wagon

in late June in Connecticut.

The sticky, shiny plastic has cracks that bite us.

My mother says, It’s 87 and counting.

No one is saying a word.

As the poem progresses, Watson keeps picking at the cracks in the plastic, revealing greater fissures. She and her sisters are “straightjacketed into dresses and our mother’s hope for acceptance” at a roadside stop while their brother “rides shotgun and wears what he wants.”

“The Favorite” follows this road to its last page. Watson interlaces pleasant images — of innocence and lust, physical beauty and inner strength — with word pictures of disappointment and neglect. Her words illustrate the ways family history and other malformed relationships wrap around DNA like a vine, affecting the way we experience pain and grace.

The latest from the California-based poet arrives via Golden Antelope, a Kirksville-based press that also delivers fiction and works of cultural scholarship. Watson’s poetry packs tragic punches, and yet is leavened with moments of good humor, exquisite beauty and primal desire.

Past and present versions of the poet meet in nearly every stanza. A line like “I have been hiding for a long, long time” (from”Early Childhood Memory Number 7″) is offered with hindsight, yet grounded in palpable feeling. Other childhood snapshots will evoke knowing nods from nearly every reader, even as the names and details are changed. After a household crime occurs in “Who Put the Tiffany Paper in the Rat’s Cage,” she pens the line, “It’s pretty clear who did this but we are lined up anyway.”

Generations of female family members live under the patriarchal thumb and expect no better for their followers. A relative “once told my grandmother / to break my spirit just as / hers had been. By then it was / too late,” she writes in “Great Aunt Helen.”

Other incarnations of Watson pray for something like deliverance, for something more. In “Hiding Faith,” she bucks against her mother’s spiritual indifference and looks for a different change of scenery, the one right before her face.

Cynthia Paterno said if I became a Catholic, I would have a cleaner

soul, so I turned my closet into an altar using books, shoe boxes,

candle stubs from the dining room, lace cloths from the top shelf

of the linen closet where I often hid, and

odd detritus found in the sewing box.

Like a squirrel hiding nuts, I hid faith.

The internal displacement sounds through a poem like “Musical Chairs,” where Watson writes, “I feel like we’re playing musical chairs in the world. / I am not good at that game.” In the title passage, relationships with all manner of men disorient. Even the mere title of a poem like “For Sale: Wedding Gown, Never Worn” says so much.

She writes of discovered infidelities in “Theft” and of a family heirloom that dooms the romance of its owners in “The Wedding Veil.” Watson holds so many broken things together in her hands, helping us see their original shape and how they’ve changed.

Still, she wraps her words around moments of beauty, however elusive they might be. Her narrator comes back to herself in “I’ve Found Her Lost Again.” Within the noise of a pool party, she gazes at a woman enveloped by an inflatable swan.

She could be 19 or 70. She’s listening to

the opera of summer, writing a bird libretto, her fingers

holding the minute hand on the clock of time, suspended

by the undercurrent of oboe, she knows she’s different.

She feels every rhythm.

Late in the book, “Slice of Life” takes an askew angle into the themes of attention and connection, often furthered by poets like Mary Oliver. Out on a walk, the narrator interrupts a young pair beholden to their phones.

She looks up at me gently when I say out loud

“Look up! You are missing the world!” and

laughs like she’s been caught eating the good

chocolate and he keeps walking and texting,

walking and texting.

“Under it All” feels like 21st-century Shakespeare with its opening portrait: “Under the coral sweater / designed by Gianni Versace / sits my elegant heart beating.”

“The Favorite” will make any attentive reader wince dozens of times, then sit up straighter to savor moments of sheer pleasure and wonder. Watson knows her story — and stories like hers — like a priest knows scripture, and recites each verse with the same look of strange mercy.

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Kirkus Review, August 27,2020

This debut poetry collection examines a trajectory from privileged and constrained girlhood to full maturity.

The 64 poems assembled here are grouped in three chronological sections, from childhood to the speaker’s elder years. The speaker and her family exist in a rarefied world (riding lessons, a visit to the White House) that’s strewn with traps. In the opening poem, “Road Trip,” a girl and her five sisters are “all naked in the backseat / of a 1957 Plymouth station wagon,” hot and uncomfortable on the trip to their grandfather’s house. The girls’ starched white dresses crackle in the way back: “Since we’re never / clean enough, we’ll be hauled out at a rest stop / to be straightjacketed into dresses and our mother’s / hope for acceptance.” Meanwhile, the girls’ brother “rides / shotgun and wears what he wants.” Watson’s narrative voice is deceptively simple, its underlying power achieved through such devices as well-calculated line endings that lend emphasis to words like “never” or that enact the poem’s movement, as when halting at a “rest stop.” The volume’s prose poems, in contrast, overflow their containers, giving a sense of pressured speech. Though many poems express anger or frustration, they also capture a growing appreciation of the speaker’s gifts: “Under the coral sweater / designed by Gianni Versace / sits my elegant heart beating.” Wry humor, too, leavens the collection. In the closing piece, “Adoption,” the speaker considers how well suited she would be to the British royal family: “I know how to dress and have beautiful table manners / and I really feel comfortable with a strict schedule.” The book includes a few photographs that provide a visual commentary, as with “Road Trip” being preceded by the image of a carefully dressed, beribboned girl.

Thoughtful, well-crafted poems that trace a path of self-discovery.