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'Mean' streaks

October 19, 2008|David L. Ulin

In JULY 2007, Colette Labouff Atkinson, associate director of the International Center for Writing and Translation at UC Irvine, noted in the online magazine Babble that, faced with early menopause, she'd decided to birth a book. "[W]hat nagged me nights when I'd bolt upright in bed," she wrote, "wasn't that I didn't have children; it was that I hadn't finished a book."

Fifteen months later, Atkinson has her book -- the prose poetry collection "Mean" (University of Chicago Press: 52 pp., $14 paper), whose 43 vignettes add up to an emotional autobiography. In the title piece, Atkinson describes her husband's former wife, a stripper. "He traded her in for me," she writes. "To people I don't know, I say she was a dancer. I watch them, puzzled, wonder how anyone could not love a ballerina. And you have to question a guy like that: trading in a sweet stripper for me."

The irony is that we are people she doesn't know, but this is part of the book's exquisite tension. Again and again, Atkinson reveals intimacies in an offhand way. "Gain" describes her great-uncle, a columnist for the ILWU Warehouse News, who "[b]etween the lines, be wise -- organize -- " composes a fairy tale about a pony made of gold. "For God's Sake, Get Out" recalls "The Amityville Horror," then morphs into a meditation on how houses can be haunted by disappointment and loss.

Atkinson is as comfortable riffing on pop culture (Willie Nelson, "Three Days of the Condor") as she is on Cicero, John Milton and Herodotus, all of whom show up in her poems. But this is not showing off. Rather, these bits and pieces -- unexpected, at times half-remembered -- only give more weight to her experience, a heady mix of ideas and influences that reverberates like memory in the mind.

-- David L. Ulin

david.ulin@latimes.com

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