Erica Dawson, Big-Eyed Afraid



Foreword by Mary Jo Salter
(Judge of the Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize, 2006)

104 pp, ISBN 10: 1-904130-26-7,  ISBN 13: 978-1904130-26-0, £8.99 (paperback only),  
Publication, November 11th 2007

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A note about Big-Eyed Afraid

"In Big-Eyed Afraid, a first book of genuine originality, Erica Dawson turns the mirror held up to nature on herself. Both humorous and heart-wrenching, Dawson balances formal adroitness with a 21st-century colloquial idiom modulating between demotic and mandarin registers, a voice all her own. Employing numerous forms, including the rondeau, ballade, rhyme royal and her own adaptation of the In Memoriam stanza, Dawson elevates the self only to see it combust into pieces of broken character, an arch of introspection signalled by the book's opening and ending series of nickname poems, including "Nappyhead," "Mommy Dearest," and "DrugFace," where contradictions of personal, cultural, and intellectual identities are exposed. In between, Dawson completes the case history, calling on everyone from Freud and Puccini to Rita Hayworth and James Brown while craftily moving between rhyme's mellifluous voice and that of a frighteningly self-effacing honesty: "…search high for your halo and penance / And a murder of crows and your birthday's sentence." Yet for every stanza spent in Dawson's mind, each page of Big-Eyed Afraid opens up to face and find shade from reality's "blue leaded sun burning its shine too strong."
m t
he judge’s foreword

Chosen as Best Debut Volume for 2007 by Contemporary Poetry Review


A note on Erica Dawson

Erica Dawson was born in Columbia, Maryland in 1979. Majoring in the Writing Seminars, she received her BA with departmental honors from Johns Hopkins University in 2001. After earning her Master of Fine Arts from Ohio State University in 2006, she moved south to the University of Cincinnati, where she is pursuing a PhD in English and Comparative Literature as the Elliston Fellow in Poetry. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Barrow Street, Blackbird, Sewanee Theological Review, Southwest Review, and Virginia Quarterly Review. She has been awarded several fellowships and prizes, including the Academy of American Poets Prize at Ohio State University. She also took second place in the 2004 Morton Marr Poetry Prize.



Praise for Big-Eyed Afraid

"Dexterously rhythmic, with punchy rhymes and inventive style, Erica Dawson's poems allow her to sing a truly modern song of her herself and persuade the reader to assume what she assumes with every perfectly placed note along the way. This book is a joy to read." – Contemporary Poetry Review

"Erica Dawson is the most exciting younger poet I've seen in years. What drive and verve! Even in lines under tight control, she can sound reckless. Her dazzling wit informs poem after poem, making each seem like a stiff drink with a dash of bitters. Big-Eyed Afraid is a sensational debut. I can't recall finding this much energy between two covers since Ariel." – X. J. Kennedy

“Polished but unvarnished, exquisitely alive, the poems in Big-Eyed Afraid are utterly electrifying. Erica Dawson’s is a name to remember, and these are poems you won’t forget.” – Claire Messud

"Big-Eyed Afraid is a fast-paced, breathlessly witty and illuminating riff on the multiple effects of race, sex, biology and social pressure on who we are and how we see ourselves. Dawson’s dazzling rhymes, her perfect pitch for an array of idioms ranging from the smutty to the sacred, and her extraordinary combination of metrical control and jazz-like syntactical elaboration make her work feel at one and the same time chiseled and improvised, traditional and utterly distinct. Brilliantly alert to multiple influences yet irreducibly tied to this particular poet at this particular moment in our collective history, Big-Eyed Afraid is one of the most compelling and entertaining books of poetry I’ve read in I don’t know how long.” – Alan Shapiro


Reviews of Big-Eyed Afraid


Prairie Schooner

"In Erica Dawson's poetry, the themes of love and death are handled with verve and an eager desire to make sense of an American landscape lit by neon and drenched in zinfandel and dior. Dawson's first book and winner of the Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize, investigates a modern world mediated by psychiatric drugs, diagnoses, and unabashed carnal cravings. Dawson tempers her autobiographical intensity with humor, irrerevence, and delight in language. Each poem reveals an effortless control of form combined with an exuberant syntactical playfulness. Few poets this young ... are writing (successfully!) in forms such as the ballade, rondeau, rhyme royale, and sestina." – Michelle Y. Burke


Antioch Review, Fall 2008

"[The] debut volume of a remarkable talent ... Dawson's metrical command and humane outlook offer a multifaceted self always intelligent and engaging. – Ned Balbo




From Big-Eyed Afraid

Doll Baby


I was born, Mom says, by the Slice-
N-Tug, Cesarean, just hand-
Picked like a toy from a trunk – God-tanned
And yet, transparent? ice-

Blue cord choking a hold
Around my neck. I convalesced
In incubator sheen, undressed
And darling, I’ve been told.

From preemie small, I grew
Past grown (“Goddamn Incredible Hulk.”)
I’m too-short pants and breasts, all bulk,
And nipple peek-a-boo,

Barbie, and Glamour Do.
I’m Elegance. I’ve seen mom’s scar,
And my stretch mark of rouge et noir,
The pubescent residue

From the navel down, from where
I grew – my pigment’s treasure trail
Like bristle on an alpha male.
But am I debonair

Since someone told me once,
“You’re big enough to be a man” –
Adam in Eve, all Dapper Dan
And Dressy Bessy? Once,

Twice, three times a lady? Yes,
Me tall? Yes. Model-like I’ll lie
In a Da Vinci sprawl (fee fi ... )
And feminine finesse.

I’m Stretch. I’m doll-like seams
Inside and out. My brain’s in two
Halves split again. In transitu
My veins shoot blood in beams

Of brilliant red, the red
Of airbrushed lips, of toy-faced cheeks.
I’ll flirt in flush because Clinique’s
On sale. I’ll lie in bed

Made-up, a daydream death
With playtime rigor mortis, id stiff
In still-life poise, and watch my midriff
Rise, and hear one last breath.

Post mortem, Mommy’s prize
Will close her eyes and (finally) abstain,
The Porcelain Princéss, the Chatelaine
Dwindling to average size.




Bees in the Attic

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past

– William Shakespeare


As if I’d move enough to make a noise
As loud as theirs, those bees, I circled around
My whirring bedroom, hurdling children’s toys.
I thought my lungs would buzz the attic’s sound,

Crescendo, shh and hum; went round until
I lost my breath, lay down. The ceiling wet,
White dark with the hive, I dreamt the comb would spill
Its honey on my pink blankets. When it met

My lips the plaster lath would crack, and sweet
Dead bees stuck to the stucco shards would swarm
My face. I’d drown in wings and the petite
Menagerie with the giant verve. So, warm

And wrapped, I moved the covers, stood on my toes
And reached, and to this day nobody knows

I reached. And to this day nobody knows
The stucco’s crimson dot came from my tongue.
When helping Mom in our small kitchen, I flung
The spinach-water and the afterflows

Of faucet-drips with flicking fingers, throws
To the fogged window above the sink. They clung,
I waited, for seconds until the window wrung
Itself of green, steam tears and the glass sang the woes

Of hissing chicken thighs fried in the cast
Iron pot. And the window sang in Grandma’s voice,
“Go Down, Moses,” and the stained-glass sugar plum

Fairy that hung on the liquid pane at the last
“My people go,” raised up her hands. “Rejoice!”
I heard the bees from there growl in a hum.

From there, I heard the bees growl in a hum
Everywhere, in Sylvan lilacs that I picked
For the basement’s dollhouse, singing in the drum-
ming dryer’s pulse as the washer flowed and clicked.

Their noise was huge to the pint-sized figurines
Who had no ears, but eye-shaped mouths. I posed
Their arms and legs in small domestic scenes
Of “Daddy’s home,” their tiny red door closed,

Their eye-mouths always open in a gasp
Or scream, as if something were about to fall
Upon their house like the locust plague. The hasp
Was fastened tight. I knocked them down, played all

Four died before the darkness could descend
As if, somehow, I’d write their perfect end.

As if somehow I’d write the perfect end
To every moment, tonight, outside my house
Long left behind, I watch a hydrant douse
A child. And when I let the darkness bend

Around me in a blink, I fade to black.
Eyes closed, I eulogize the Harbor’s dock,
Old Bay, the lit-up Bromo-Seltzer clock
Blue in the smoke from the beacon, the factory stack,

Night’s quasi-black against the smoke’s bright white.
The voice inside my head is talking smack.
The coda of today is just tonight,
No climax, only here and the bric-a-brac

Of memories just fond in retrospect.
In them, the spring’s azaleas genuflect.

In them, that spring, azaleas genuflect,
Wilting, about to die in our little garden;
The noon sun bores too hot; sweat droplets harden
And case my cheeks as new weeds bottleneck

The ants in sidewalk cracks. That spring, I cried
And checked and checked in mania. I died
My hardest but it never took. No doubt
I didn’t have the guts to try. But I’d scout

Locations (tool shed? shower? tub?), and Dad
And Mom, in separate rooms, would sleep right through
My tiptoed wandering about our blue,
Big siding house. I settled on the plaid

Of my own sheets, penning the letter in
My head. It pounded with adrenaline…

It pounds in my head with my adrenaline.
Dear Mom,
Call me the dummy, the mannequin,
Dead as the dancer in the box that sings
The Mendelssohn on the top shelf and rings
With the scope of bells, and vibrates with the sound

Of clocks. The clock ticks loud as Fall rewound
At every equinox, again and again.

And when you think of me remember when
I last said Sorry. As the autumns pass
At quarter to five, the time goes fast, and the grass
Will slow its growth. But I am huge in your head,
Pounding. And we’re the same. Your blood I’ve bled.
You’re sleeping in my bed now with my bees.
I’m swimming in the hollow sound of seas.

And now I’m swimming in that sound of seas,
The inexhaustible murmur. Now I’m back
To letters at this desk of letters, keys,
Paper and screen, your egomaniac,

Dear critics. The narcissist’s tried “art” inside
This paper’s looking-glass, distorted, wide
With me and my burned hair, a blistered ember
From the core of the stove’s hot comb. And I remember

My silence sweet as canopy beds or a girl
In spinning duchess satin’s whispered whirl.
Then, all the days ahead were bees in the attic,
The moments still unseen but heard, ecstatic,

Promising blood as I stood, now stand, all poise,
As if I’ll move enough to make a noise.




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