In transcending the “no guts, no glory” cliché, the “no pain, no gain” motto, Anne Marie Rooney brews her own body of watchwords in her debut poetry collection, Spitshine. Rooney’s gritty poems never come out and say, “no spit, no shine,” but her language bares its teeth in such a way that no direct declaration is necessary.
While arranged in four sections, the collection might be better classified as one of four movements. On a basic level, the sections chronicle the stages of a turbulent relationship—from coy resistance to violent desire, from fever pitch to staggering loss, from the beginning of the affair to its end. However, to focus solely on this material would largely undermine Rooney’s ingenuity, that smart spark consistent in each poem and segment. To concentrate only on the content would be to bypass Rooney’s poetic choices and astute craft: contorted sestinas, torqued sonnets, and cinematic pastorals, all of which charge the book. In an almost obsessive and repetitive nature, Rooney places these poems in one section, picks them up, shakes them around, and sets them back down again in another section with a slight switch in perspective. This choice to braid the collection in this way allows Rooney’s readers to follow along through content and form as the speaker begins to shift with her poems.
For, in reality, Rooney’s poems speak more to the process of becoming, to transformation, to those uncomfortable shifts and hard adjustments that frequently accompany life. Each section works within this arc, which makes each individual part not only tightly connected with the other segments but also invaluable to understanding the collection as a whole.
In her very first poem “Domestic,” Rooney states that “we should begin/at the head, the think-prickle.” And she is true to her word. These initial poems expose the first prickles of all Rooney’s thoughts and questions, which only amplify as the collection progresses—prickles of the body, of raw sexuality, of fierce desire, of that spitting intensity between two people, that chemical sting. Poems like “Instructions For Wooing Me (Monster That I Am)” jumpstart the collection’s first movement:
First generate a charge. Rub hard if you have to. Crash a little against my fleeciest spots. When I begin to stain with electricity, turn your faucets off. I am a pornography of small promises. I tell you this softly because really I am a soft thing.
A poem of high voltage, hard language, and urgent collisions, this individual piece not only acts as a spark plug for the rest of the poems, but it also offers the readers a way inwhich to understand how Rooney structured her collection, a way in which to read her collection, even. Rooney uses the vessel of a brimming instruction manual to set up the rest of her book— a book that starts with a charge, grows as the poems rub against one an-
other, crashes at times, but exists as this beautiful, soft thing at the end of it all.
Parallel with the beginning of a significant relationship is the speaker’s awareness of self. In the poem “Dirty Story,” Rooney writes “The something I have become / is truly unbecoming.” Further, before the first section closes, another self-aware line emerges in the poem “Hasp Pastoral”: “I am coming / unsewn—thoughtlessly—a show pigeon / of screwy measures.” These inaugural lines begin the book’s “spitshine” process—a process in which a surface is scrubbed until it is so shiny it becomes reflective. In this case, Rooney isn’t talking about a shoeshine; rather, she is referring to the self as the surface that needs cleansing and buffing and polishing in order to become.
The second movement, or section, of the book is one of significant shifts. Within this section, the speaker both takes what she wants and ultimately loses it by the segment’s close. In the poem “Face Sonnet,” dualities abound as Rooney tries to marry violence and tenderness within the sphere of desire:
My face is to
you as the cut is to clean. But these two
things do sync. So is treachery. The one
time night bloated me out of my crisp, you
came up like a flame-soaked sheet. My face
had never quickened in storm, and craved you
for your wider dry. If you knew my face
you didn’t say but shone your bluest phase,
its shadow cleaved anew. So I earned you.
The rhythm Rooney creates with the repetitive end words—the “one,” “two,” “face,” “you”—not only plays within the sonnet’s convention, but it also begets an eerie foreshadowing of things to come. “So I earned you,” Rooney writes, but not without the “treachery,” the “flame-soaked sheet,” the “shadow cleaved.” It is a vicious claiming. And yet other poems within this section provide different lenses that show the speaker’s growth. Poems like “What The Heart Is” attempt to talk about the idealized human organ in relation to simple geometry, angles, and lines. The sequence of “The No Reward Sestinas” condenses the form into staccato charges wherein the loss of a lover becomes apparent. It is within this section that Rooney makes her biggest move—the shining crash where all starts to become illuminated in the glittering fragments.
The last two sections of the book chronicle best the “spitshine” process. Here, we see the poet buffing and polishing and cleansing in her elegies and epistolary pieces. For the first time in the collection, we begin to see the first true moments of self-tenderness and protection in poems like “Letter To A Lampshade”:
I have stopped speaking to anything
but the body, maybe when he calls me
and tells me to come and kiss him, I wind
my own arm around my own neck
and go out walking.
Rooney writes transformation successfully. The last two sections don’t apologize for the first two; they don’t fall into sentimentality. They exist within the arc of becoming, which seems to be Rooney’s intent. To fully experience this collection, look at the book as if it were an atom, as if it were concerned with both the whole and with what generates when different charges rub against each other. Interpret the book as one of accumulation—one where without spit, without violence and heartache, there would be no shine, no redemption, no change. Read this line of Rooney’s: “Let’s the cradle be and fill up—I mean fill yourselves with your selves.” And then read it again. Take the words to heart; Rooney knows that beating thing well.