Moira Egan writes the conversational, wry poems in Hot Flash Sonnets from an age where “this turning fifty thing is looming large,” where menopause is the treacherous bridge between the prime of life and old age. “I’ve yet to find the cream that tackles wrinkles / and at the same time vanquishes my pimples,” she writes. Yet underneath this tongue-in-cheek humor runs the current of real loss.
From the outset, Egan’s speaker negotiates a line between “insider” and “outsider,” oscillating between in-the-know sass and bewilderment. The collection opens with the lines, “Our mothers never told us there’d be days / (and weeks and months and years) like this; you think / they took a vow of silence?” Between jokes about mood swings and descriptions of hot flashes, she muses on the humiliating need for personal lubricant and the small daily failures of her body, each an unexpected and unpleasant surprise. Not only is her body failing her, but society—including mothers, friends, and doctors—has failed her by inadequately preparing her for this stage of life. “[W]hy don’t they tell us it gets worse?” she asks plaintively.
Poems titled “Insomnia” and “Mood Swing” are interspersed as a running thread throughout the collection, mirroring the intrusion/recurrence of these two menopausal symptoms in the speaker’s new reality, her changed daily life. Each take on these themes builds a different metaphor, without becoming heavy-handed. Egan compares her menopausal self to a storm; to the sweat that breaks over you as you step out of a cool marble palazzo into the sun or eat spicy vindaloo; to an angry cat awakened from a nap, ordinarily sweet but made “monstrous.”
Despite poem titles like “I Can’t Do That Anymore,” “Things That Disappear,” or “And Into Ashes All My Lust?”, this collection is not devoid of hope. Egan deftly avoids the contrary traps of slick cuteness and self-pitying despair. Instead, the poems are light and smart; cynical at times, but in an honest, rather than overbearing, manner. Her speaker is self-aware in a way that comes off as snarky, rather than navel-gazing—“I’m trying (pass the wine) not to be cynical. / Tomorrow (promise) I’ll hit the elliptical.” The speaker combats despondency with wry humor: “I focus on my third-eye chakra, deep- / ly indigo, shaped almost like a tear, / in fact, shaped very like the ones I’ll shed / if I don’t get some rest soon.”
Comparisons may be odious, but it’s hard not to compare this collection to Marilyn Hacker’s conversational-yet-virtuosic sonnets, which manage to combine the profound and profane, the exalted and the everyday, in a single breath. Deeply grounded in the body, these poems mourn the body’s failings, attempt to cope with its changes, and confront the loss of youth, while also celebrating that youth: “these desert days leave me wildly nostalgic / for blissful nights when we were twenty-one / and whipped the K-Y Jelly out for fun.”
And speaking of lubricant (there’s a sentence you don’t often get to write in a review!), Egan’s frank discussion of the body extends to its failings, as in the poem “Femystique®,” which discusses a product that’s the female equivalent of Viagra. Female desire, a topic largely drowned out by its male counterpart in our culture, is too often branded as mysterious (as in the name of this titular feminine product)—incomprehensible, complex, mystical, perhaps even mythical. But Egan writes subtly yet frankly about the “promise to swap (noun) want for (verb) want,” interweaving her admission of aging with an admonition not to let branding (“the sleek pink tube and Sixties font”) define herself, at any stage of life.
Egan tosses in a fair share of Italian, French, and German words, but never as ornaments. Each instance is used in a manner appropriate to each poem: for example, the exclamation “E poi, all’imporivviso, / la tempesta!” right before a bolt of lightning—the Italian words fit perfectly in this moment of operatic drama. I do wonder whether including Greek words—not phonetic, but written in the Greek alphabet—is really necessary. Egan only does this once, but the inclusion of foreign characters was off-putting to me. With Romance languages or transliterations, I can at least sound out the words and/or “gist” the meaning, whether or not I speak the language; the Greek was all Greek, to me.
The most impressively acrobatic poem in the collection, “Forgetfulness,” is a jaw-dropping feat of formal verse-writing. Each line of this sonnet defines a term listed in a column to the right side of the poem, and those terms follow their own ABAB-CDCD-EFEF-GG rhyme scheme, as well. Nor are these easy rhymes like “love” and “above”; no, Egan rhymed words like “Mnemosyne” (“Goddess of Memory”) with “ontology” (“how it’s supposed to be”), or “Radziwill” (“pretty actress sister of Jackie O”) with “xanthophyll” (“leaves’ autumnal colors, brown & yellow”). The inventiveness of poems like this one show us (rather than, as the aphorism goes, telling us) that, despite it all, the speaker is a quick-witted, lively, and creative powerhouse. And perhaps this is what Egan is showing not only the reader—not even primarily the reader—but herself. Throughout this collection, the speaker relies on her ability to create art as a means of affirming her essential identity in the midst of crisis.