I call to report the body.
Thus begins Beshrew, Danielle Pafunda’s black swan dive from William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 133 into the delicious darkness of obsession and power, violence and vengeance.
This book itself is a sueded treasure of a book, 6 ¾ inches by 4 ½, a clandestine backroom of a book upholstered in velvet, furnished with nothing but a Dictaphone and the reek of perfumed smoke, of after; this book is a distillation, whiskered and tendrilled, an organic, orgasmic silken slink of a book; if this book were an article of clothing it would be a headdress silver chain-leashed to a four-inch sparkling choker, a satin slip, wet at the hem.
The poems are poems to read through a hangover, with a raw T-bone over one blued eye, a bromo losing its fizz at your elbow. This is noir, baby, via Shakespeare’s Sonnet 133, a night drive with no brakes down to the docks, a smear of lipstick, the scuttle of vermin echoing in an empty metal room.
This book slips like a secret into a pocket, tucks deep into the bodice of a half-laced corset like a (furtive) whisper-sticky pocket square. Elizabethan sonnet meets Regency fashion meets Double Indemnity, who nod at and then ignore each other at the rock opera.
The collection is composed mostly of sonnets, each consisting of fifteen lines, seven couplets plus a single line. Three lone couplets—part nursery rhyme, part hallucination—appear on their own between longer poems in the latter third of the book. At the opening, after the body is called in, the speaker is in investigative, forensics mode:
What is the angle of impact? What
is the point of origin? At what
height did the butcher stand and what
breadth his wings when spread? What
word was lisped into blood spatter?
Poem three is a litany of the alleged victim’s accoutrement:
My husband’s herringbone tie.
My husband’s pinstriped jacket. //
My husband after the shotgun blast
but before the long-houred drive.
By poem number five the speaker has directed their attention to a you, and keeps that focus for all but four of the remaining sonnets and the three lone couplets.
Shakespeare’s sonnet bemoans a love triangle, but there are more points than three in Pafunda’s geometry, a winding Art Deco pattern of interaction and divergence. It’s as though the love triangle has been cubed, an extension of Shakespeare’s “A torment thrice three-fold.” In Beshrew, the speaker may be a Dark Lady herself, or another incarnation of The Bard’s speaker.
I like trouble more than sex,
so this is what you catch me making.
Which is not to say that sex is underrepresented—
Time to touch touch touch you. Time to spell it
out. Letter by primly sniped letter from your
book. My fingers bleed, stick. Time to
touch you is all the time in the world is bed
enough and time.
—but the crimes of passion being grilled under a hot light are literary as well as corporeal. The speaker is:
feeding your pages into the storm drain, destroying evidence; alive, The book in / hand, betrays. As a feral thing would; the book is taken in, consumed, unconsumable: I cross my legs where a page of / your book threatens to drip out.
And now, to fashion: Pafunda pays glorious attention to the textiles in her poems. This is the modern-day dress version of Elizabethan drama that doesn’t make you cringe for its self-consciousness, but rather, inspires with its inevitability, reveals the singing layers of its influence in a brass button sewn into a cuff, a ribbon, a nightgown, a stiletto hidden in a throat, a mouth that is a reticule—which, when I looked it up, was discovered to be from-the-French-from-the-Latin for net, a drawstring handbag of the Regency era, often beaded, designed to replace the pocket: accessory, catch-all, indispensable.
Except nothing replaces the pocket in Beshrew, which is itself indispensable as a place to conceal, to keep; as a thing to weight:
There’s a letter
in my husband’s pocket. A letter of letters clipped
for ransom. For a thousand dollars and a bag of
dope and a couple of tickets to the boxing match
held in a freighter on the tracks.
In reading and holding this book, I came to think of the sonnet form as a pocket, a containment, but one that threatened to come or was actually being rent apart, like a house outside of which we are perpetually kept. Despite the reference to the husband’s office, the bedpost:
I don’t want you to think this is about domesticity.
Indeed, this is wild and raging territory. Shakespeare wrote, “Prison my heart in thy steel bosom’s word.” Pafunda imprisons her speaker in a hull, a rusted hold, the shipping container, abandoned, mostly, by all but the rat. The rat is one a number of animals that prowl these pages, including the vole, an opossum family, mice, fox—a whole nocturnal cast of creature witnesses. The rat, however, recurs most often, and is a shape-shifter—
I make a blindfold of rat’s skin.
A rat brings me a bottle of Xanax.
A rat is my choice of ghosts tonight.
A rat comes shining through the garden gate.
It’s hard to know where to stop. Through repeated readings of Beshrew, I feel like I’m approaching a new and irresistible mystery each time, whose outcome I cannot foresee, and within whose puzzlements I can roll around on peacock carpets, bedazzled by gilded elevator doors in a beautiful hotel gone slightly to seed, fed on the fresh horror of A bundle of clawed insects /…come untied in my lap. This book of poems is drenchingly gratifying for its masterful craft, inventive wordplay, and unapologetic delirium. Pafunda writes:
wet from the pond. I’m wept from the pond. I
wash up the mud coming streak by streak off my
skin in the light of the half-dead moon and
do not prefer any reader over myself.
And so, Pafunda’s femme fatale is their own hell-hot mistress, bloodied and owning it.
Irene Cooper’s poems appear online and in print. She is a freelance copywriter, facilitates creative writing workshops in Central Oregon, and co-edits The Stay Project. Committal, her first novel, is forthcoming from Vegetarian Alcoholic Press in 2020.