Pedestal Reviews Rodeo for the Sheepish
The Pedestal Magazine Reviews Ellyn Maybe’s Rodeo for the Sheepish
Reviewer: JoSelle Vanderhooft
Of all the things I review for Pedestal, spoken word CDs are my favorite, both because of their rarity (few poets, after all, have the resources to put one together) and the ingenuity with which they blend visual art, music, and, of course, poetry read aloud. The best of these CDs blend all of these disparate elements to make something that is neither music nor poetry but which uses the common roots of each to create something bold, new, and frequently difficult to categorize, save for the term “performance.” Indeed, the successful spoken word poet is one who does not just read his or her work, but performs it as if it were a stand-up routine, a monologue, part of a “Happening,” or simply as something meant to live beyond the confines of the page.
Ellyn Maybe is a poet who knows how to do just that. Not only a strong poet on paper, she is also a consummate performer with a warm, full voice that is as friendly and inviting as it is delightfully quirky. Few poets—indeed, few performers of any stripe—have the personality, honesty and, yes, unabashed geekiness which Maybe displays in her readings of the ten poems on Rodeo for the Sheepish. Her voice is not only entrancing but unforgettable; indeed, I would very much like to hear her perform live someday.
Happily, Maybe’s poems are not only uniformly strong, but also lend themselves to being spoken so readily that they appear to have been written with performance in mind. Maybe begins the CD strongly with “All My Life I’ve Wanted a Great Love,” in which she enumerates ideal qualities for a lover that are just as unusual as her voice: “Someone who cries at least once a year,” and “Someone whose eyes are not remembered by color, but by every film he’s ever loved.” Maybe then caps this inventive lift with a line that is every bit as wistful as it is funny and ultimately heartbreaking: “Ever since junior high, I thought this person existed. Now I believe more in cows jumping over the moon.”
Maybe skillfully and wittily dissects the struggles and joys of her profession in “Being an Artist” and pays a touching, illuminating, and off-beat tribute to Sylvia Plath in a long poem named for her, and in which Maybe tackles not only the horror of Plath’s treatment at the hands of a sexist culture, but also the importance of her work to young artists, whom she still touches “through tin can lines we walk through.” But my favorite pieces on Rodeo for the Sheepish were the three in which Maybe speaks of women whom U.S. society frequently casts aside or overlooks because they are overweight (“Picasso”), quirky and intelligent (“There Were Two Girls Who Looked a Lot the Same”), or, as with the subject of “City Street,” just lonely, socially awkward, and perhaps depressive. While the poem is best read and listened to in its entirety, these stanzas are some good highlights (rendered in prose-poem format):
She dreams in psychedelic colors, fuschia and periwinkle. When she sleeps, the voices stop. Her voices are loud today. It’s the you’re not normal alto blended with the you’ll never find love baritone. This is her morning coffee. This is what wakes her up.
Today might be different. She whispers words of encouragement but because her ear is bruised from this lifetime, instead of hearing love she hears of and instead of hope it’s nope.
The girl looks at her finger. There was a diamond. She got it when she was 6. Her grandma said no matter what the world thought of her, she deserved beautiful things.
Someone shouted hey baby. It momentarily distracted her from the symphony of lonely conductors playing in her brain.
When asked where she’s going she says the library. Her friend smirks and says you need to get out more…books can’t give you an orgasm.
She responds you aren’t pressing right then. Books have a double life. Just like readers.
While I don’t want to spoil the experience for listeners, the poem does end with a sort of transformation for the subject which is at once moving and exhilarating. Suffice it to say, then, that this poem spoke directly to me as someone who has often felt alone and several steps behind the pacing and concerns of the world around me. I dare say the poem will resonate with several women who have felt the same—whom I assume to be the silent majority of women.
Maybe’s choice of subject matter is not the only thing that makes her poetry sing. She is also profoundly skilled with language. Note above the succinctness and muscle of her lines and her tight control over them (“Her grandma said no matter what the world thought of her, she deserved beautiful things.”). Note also that the poetry in this excerpt uses such tools as metaphor and simile sparingly. Instead, Maybe gives her poetry force through pithy dialogue (“Books have a double life. Just like readers.”) and through powerful, unexpected imagery (“the symphony of lonely conductors playing in her brain.”) This succinct quality makes her poetry ideal for speaking aloud and also beautifully conversational and down-to-earth, two qualities which also make it enormously accessible and relatable—not in the sense that Maybe “dumbs down” any of her subjects, but that she manages to tap into such truly universal feelings as social awkwardness and isolation.
For the most part, a spoken word CD is made or broken by its musical accompaniment. Here, Maybe is extremely fortunate to have found ideal partners in Harlan Steinberger (who also produced Rodeo for the Sheepish) and Tommy Jordan (who doubled as art director for the CD booklet’s striking black and white photographs). Steinberger and Jordan’s instrumentals—of saxophone, drums, guitar and amplifier, to name but a few— complement Maybe’s voice, underscoring rather than overwhelming her words in such a way as to bolster the poems’ themes and ambiances. The trombone, drum licks, and harp of “City Streets,” for example, give the poem an even more awkward and unusual feel, which helps evoke its strange, sad protagonist. The steel guitars in “Sylvia Plath” likewise evoke the sorrow of the poem, just as the electric guitar wails and drum beats in “Picasso” evoke a mood of sexiness, appropriate for a poem about the beauty of large women’s bodies. Interestingly, sometimes Jordan (who provides the tracks’ vocals) will sing a line from the poem during intervals between words or a refrain that, while extraneous to the text, nevertheless complements it well, as the refrain “City streets criss-cross inside me” does in “City Streets.” Together, poetry and music create a unique experience that neither could achieve by itself. While the most obvious name for this experience would be theater, for some reason I find it much closer to visual art, if only because the mental images evoked for me by the words and music of Rodeo for the Sheepish were so bright and vibrant.
Fans of spoken word CDs and lovers of slam poetry with a nerd-girl edge should seek this CD out as soon as they finish reading this review, as should anyone curious to see the highs to which this blended art form can aspire. I cannot recommend Rodeo for the Sheepish enough.