Nancy Posey, Review of Jo Barbara Taylor’s “Cameo Roles”

Review of Cameo Roles by Jo Barbara Taylor
by Nancy Posey

by Jo Barbara Taylor
Big Table
ISBN: 9780983066675

As an underlying theme of her chapbook Cameo Roles, Jo Barbara Taylor explores the different roles women play throughout our lives.

While most of her poems are written free verse, Taylor experiments with form as well as she gives voices to these different women. In “Lost and Found,” she uses embedded repetition of words and images from the familiar nursery rhyme about the cow jumping over the moon to examine that time in childhood when one becomes aware of the difference between the literal and the figurative, “hyperbole, personification,” opting instead to believe the magic. The sing-song rhymes—moon/spoon, diddle/fiddle, infuse the poem but rarely as end rhyme. Instead, she picks up and repeats key words, circling back in the end line as she “return[s] to that time of magic” to the poem’s opening line about “a magical time.”

Many of the poems return the reader to childhood. In “Up the Mountain,” Taylor delves into a make-believe world of princesses, knights, and castles, using a pattern of six-line stanzas with end rhyme in the fourth and sixth lines. “Private Room” also explores child’s play, but in free verse, evoking strong images as the speaker finds a secret place beneath “an arched bower.” This poem appeals strongly to all the senses, evoking the strong scent of “purple blossoms. . . jade leaves/ and amethyst petals” as well as “peanuts/ and grape jam.”

Many of the poems take their beginnings in other classic works. In “The Long Sonnet, ” which begins with the line from Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “The night is long that never finds the day,” she plays with multiple meanings of the word “long” from the concrete—oolong and furlongs to the abstraction of her “reverie of longing” and “welcom[ing] the long dark night.”

Taylor also casts a reply to Robert Browning’s Duke in “The Duchess.” In this poem, she uses the same ten-syllable lines in rhyming couplets, although she doesn’t maintain the strict iambic meter used by Browning. In a surprise twist, however, the speaker reveals that rather than becoming a victim of the Duke’s misplaced jealousy, she actually had eloped with Fra Pandolf, the monk who painted her portrait.

The characters, primarily female, in these poems live varied lives in different times. In “Workday Dreams,” Carmen’s life alternates between the monotony of her day shift, working the “belching machine, holding her only “conversation / with belts and oily gears. . . .” and the escape of her night life, dancing salsa in a “harlequin skirt” to “the clatter of flamenco heels.”

Rachey in “The Wardrobe” wears the tattered remains of once-fine clothes, now “wrinkled and dun/ with age and mildew” as she lives on the street. Taylor’s diction makes readers aware of the sharp contrast between the woman’s reality—“dirty, gnarled. . . faded, / a bit out of shape, ripped. . .” and her fantasy as she lives in memory, and “curtsies a tilting fourth position ballet pose,” wearing her “once elegant fabrics and lace.

Readers will find humor in these Cameo Roles. “My Yoga Me” is a two-part poem revealing the reality and fantasy of a middle-aged woman practicing yoga. Each parallel stanza examines similar poses, in one her plow “awkward. . . in untilled soil,” while in the other she is “Asian lithe, a long limbed / plow.” While in reality her tree pose “wobbles,” she imagines in the second half that she merely “sway[s] in the breeze. The contrast between the speaker’s collapse and floating, distortion and stretch, groaning and flowing takes each section to the final “Namaste.”

Taylor also draws some of her humor from recent headlines with the images of a young girl’s Halloween costume: Nadya Suleman, the “Octomom” and from other popular culture, as “Murder One” responds to a story by Janet Malcolm in New Yorker of a woman on trial.

Some of the darker poems leave unanswered questions. “Likeness,” a conversation after a fiftieth class reunion alludes to a child’s likeness to a mother who abandoned her, ending with the speaker’s assertion: “I am nothing like her.” In one of the later poems, presumably autobiographical, the poet discusses her unusual double first name:

Barbara is a song of a name
for a favorite aunt, Jo a staccato
note after a mother I never saw
who would have chosen
no child instead of me.

Throughout the chapbook, readers will discover a variety of voices, many familiar, but many surprising, sometimes jarring. In the final poem, “God Wrote,” the speaker, when asked by God for a new, less “antiquated” name, suggests, among others, “poetry.”

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