Julie Babcock's stunning first collection of poems, Autoplay, offers spare, carefully crafted lyrics that are as familiar as they are uncanny. By invoking the seemingly tame imagery of Midwestern cities, the poems in this striking collection lull the reader into a sense of complacency, only to skillfully undermine this expectation that they will encounter a familiar narrative. As the book unfolds, Babcock excavates violence, discontent, and enchantment from beneath an unremarkable exterior—marked by "the green hills of the gold course," "baby-sitters," and "breath against the mirror"—restoring a sense of both danger and wonder to everyday life. In doing so, Babock offers the reader a perfect matching of form and content, particularly as her stylistic dexterity illuminates and complicates the content of the work itself.
With that in mind, Babcock's use of received literary forms to deliver unexpected content is particularly impressive. She draws a parallel between inherited modes of writing (of which couplets, tercets, and quatrains are only a few examples) and the Midwestern cultural landscape, suggesting that both have been made to seem inhospitable to creative endeavors, but can give rise to stunning imaginative work if we allow them to. She writes in "Ohio Apologia,"
A twin can never divide her wealth.
I planned to go where I'd never melt
into a mold of virgin or slut.
I wanted to love you to love myself.
I crossed the rivers with my bag of stealth
my story line revised and trussed,
but a twin can never divide her wealth.
Here Babcock simultaneously inhabits a traditional literary form and received ideas about femininity, suggesting that one can work within these bits of inherited culture to expand what is possible within them. In much the same way that the speaker herself is "twinned," her story line is "revised and trussed," suggesting the inherent instability of both literary traditions and narratives of identity. Autoplay is filled with beautifully crafted poems like this one, which offer a carefully constructed relationship between style and content.
Along these lines, I found Babcock's use of domestic imagery compelling and provocative, especially as she suggest the violence inherent in being confined to a given place. She creates a wonderful tension between the confines of formal poetry and the volatility of the images contained within these formally pristine edifices, suggesting the inevitable discontent with one's origins. Consider "Autoplay,"
I am the baby-sitter. She
is snuggled so close
we might be one.
We hear a noise
and flee the house.
"We're safe," I say, as we jump
on the outdoor trampoline.
For Babcock, a particular place entails not just mere surroundings, but specific gender roles, modes of communication, and narratives of identity. In much the same way that the speakers' voices are contained within neatly presented tercets, couplets, and pantoums, the violence inherent in narratives of place is also subsumed within these orderly forms. What's fascinating about this tension between style and content is the way that Babcock subtly suggests that conflict, and contradiction, can reside beneath a seemingly un-rippled surface. Like many of the poems in Autoplay, this piece is as beautifully crafted as it is self-aware. This is a stunning debut, and Babcock is a poet to watch.