Fragment of the Head of a Queen, Cate Marvin
Blessings and Inclemencies, Constance Merritt
The Dirty Side of the Storm, Martha Serpas
from Woman's Review of Books, November/December 2008
There has long existed an idea in American literary culture that writers who publish a highly successful and critically acclaimed first book can rarely follow it with a similar achievement. In reviewing these second volumes of poetry, I wondered if that idea exerted any power over these writers, and I thought about the publication history of poetry by American women. The matriarch herself, Emily Dickinson, published only a few poems during her lifetime. And although she self-published her 1,778 verses by binding and stitching them into small chapbooks that came to be called fascicles, in fact, she seemed to regard the public distribution of poetry as something to be avoided. "Publication," she warned, "is the auction of the mind." For poets anxious about presenting new work, this pronouncement might be quite calming.
A century later, Adrienne Rich, writing in a much richer environment for poetry by women, was less reluctant to present her work to the reading public. Her first volume, A Change of World, appeared to extraordinary acclaim in 1951, when she was 22 years old. Only four years later, despite the fact that she was living as a faculty wife, raising babies without the convenience of disposable diapers or a minivan, she produced another well-received book, The Diamond Cutters. After that, though, she paused. It took Rich eight years to publish Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, the book I think of as her actual second volume. As she struggled to fulfill her responsibilities as mother, wife, and writer in a 1950s social and political milieu that was beginning to quake open under the pressures of the emerging civil rights and peace movements, she sought a poetry that was true to her consciousness and the actual conditions of her life. In "Split at the Root," an autobiographical essay, she has written about how difficult it was to locate her own authenticity to write as she wished: unresponsive to and unimpressed by the adulatory but male-inscribed discourse that had greeted her first two books. "It took me a long time," she writes, "to get those voices out of my head." That third / second book by Rich has become iconic, realigning the terrain of previously separated poetic life and "real" life through its vision of the indivisibility of the two for women and other minorities in a patriarchal culture and history. Rich's early efforts have become a sustaining part of our literary history. Perhaps that is part of the reason why these three second books by new poets seem so calm and self-confident about following up their successes.
Cate Marvin's World's Tallest Disaster (2001) garnered two major poetry prizes—the Kathryn A. Morton Prize, chosen by the former US poet laureate Robert Pinsky, and the Tufts Discovery Award—and was short-listed for several other honors. Since then, Marvin has gone on to edit an anthology of new poets and to receive a Whiting Award, one of the most prestigious prizes given to early-career American poets. All the signs point to the emergence of an important new poet. Nevertheless, Marvin seems unfazed by the brouhaha. Her new work, Fragment of the Head of a Queen, is marvelously self-assured; it both builds on strengths of the first and develops in new directions, showcasing her striking talent, intelligence, and originality.
Marvin's world is a postmillennial, planet-sized "stadium of grief," whose citizens have grown comfortable with their hopelessness because "the goal was not known, [though] we knew / it would be discovered" ("Postscript"). Too many people racket around, confused about their purpose (if they even have one) and stunned into passivity by the chaotic, nonstop assault of the global electronic marketplace.
...And with just
a pill, millions of pills, the world didn't
mind how awfully anxious and American
things had gotten. So what if our lives
were rotten? We were ready, anesthetized,
to face another century...
Like so many younger poets, Marvin's approach to language bears the influence of almost three decades of LANGUAGE-writing. Regularly, she cooks up an inebriated broth of words that tosses us here, there, and everywhere.
The world felt very bad. Every leaf looked
Like it needed a cigarette. Gutters took
Cups strewn at their lips, turned them
Upright to offer tiny pleas for change.
Windows enacted a communal decision
To condense, despite the consistent lack
Of rain. All lunged things grew asthmatic ...
T.S. Eliot said,"Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal," and Marvin has been a good thief. She has raided the LANGUAGE larder, making off with the parts of that practice most useful for her work and putting the rest back on the shelf. She is not a party-liner; thus, the linguistic and textural excitements of her language are always accompanied by a voice that is particular and individual, even as it conjures dreary anonymity, ennui, and a general sense of life as a waste. Although her poems are not narrative in any conventional way, something constantly swishes beneath her gorgeous, mellifluous surfaces. That omnipresent something suggests that there is, ultimately, a heart of the poem to locate, a purpose to cleave to.
At the same time, Marvin tries hard to convince us that her skepticism about the possibility of authentic experience (so well-documented in her first book) has now hardened into cynicism. "Reader, don't mistake me for someone who gives a shit," she snarls in "Muckraker." Still, we can see the post-post-romantic stationed within the persona, alive and looking out alertly. Whether you think she is waiting for something rumored to have passed from the world but that may return, or whether she is merely resigned depends on how you read these poems. But I can't imagine anyone going away from this book thinking Marvin "doesn't give a shit."
Even if love is dead or at best, on life support—the victim of a world of pollution, pestilence, and metastasizing overdevelopment—sex is very much alive. A recurring theme, it never fails to energize the depressing scenarios from which so many of these poems emanate. Where Marvin was excited about sex (and writing about sex) in her first book, here she explores another dimension. A faintly sickening air characterizes these depictions of erotic love. Lovers hurt each other in their passion, leaving a "bruise necklace," a thumbprint on a cheek, a handprint on the back of a thigh. A polygamist lines up his wives on all fours, "not knowing one from the other," to take his pleasure. Quarrelling lovers commit "small terrorisms" of verbal assaults. The poems' atmosphere is often that of the moment before violence, as if experience has been so debrided, so effaced, that only a spark of physical cruelty will animate what will pass for romantic love. Marvin's world is one where all the "waylaid lovers" must "love the contagion" even if it means making "disgust / your lust."
The book reels with images and scenarios of characters assumed to be in relation who are actually separated existentially from each other despite, or perhaps because of, their physical closeness. Sometimes love seems completely dead and impossible, as in "Stone Fruit," in which the narrator is so insanely lonely that she longs to "detonate my face [and] be your obituary"—a murder-suicide that will end suffering forever. In "A Brief Attachment," the situation is minimally improved. Here, a solitary woman spends her days "lying in bed, smoking and reading / the Beats." Dispassionately, her lover imagines her encircled by "The accumulation of clothes and ashes / ... rising like a moat after a rainfall."
Refreshingly, Marvin likes to put characters in her poems, and the gaze she casts upon them is close-up and often excruciatingly intense. So many of those who people these dynamic poems are versions of the homeless windshield washers in "The Unfortunates," who perform, automaton-like, during traffic lulls all over the world:
... But they are not
thieves, they work for this: it is their job to
stagger around on sticks. Trading on woeful
expression, exchanging pities for pennies,
shaming us with their disfigurements.
While the vision is painfully empathic, it is also detached. Slow, cool, and almost clinical, it resurfaces in "Orange Drink Man," a poem about a homeless person who lives within view of the narrator's apartment windows. In an astonishing reversal, this social outsider is more alive than the speaker who spies on him. While he is an object of intense erotic curiosity to her, she and her middle-class privilege are frustratingly invisible to him.
Though no one's ever seen you eat, I know
your ribs don't show, since I saw you raise
your shirt in the lot's tarry heat to fan your
thick torso, its male line of hair, for a moment,
exposed. You did not see me. I looked away.
See me stand in this room's incandescence,
trammeling your streets with my stare. Set
me by your sun, let your sun set me, let me
walk up into your eye, carrying my suitcase.
There are so many spectacular poems here that it is hard to choose one or two to highlight. But I have to mention "Landscape with Hungry Girls"—the best poem I have ever read about the psychology of eating disorders. It is ferociously intelligent, a perfect showcase for Marvin's millennial feminism and her brilliance:
All of them watching carefully the faces
of their sleeping men, even when their own faces are
more beautiful in their watching, and if only they'd
watch their own faces beneath the revolving lights
Thinking hunger is strength, how hurt they are, girls
picking at food on their plates. I like a girl who eats.
Careful, what you say you want. The moon is distant,
yet cousin to her face: our genders worse than alien.
Bleeding is something everyone does. You don't call.
Girls snack on skyscrapers, girls gut their teddy bears,
and girls saw their own faces off. What is it to lack
compassion? When you walk through a zoo do you
not think the animals it houses could have been you?
who would you be, how hungry, if you were a girl
feeding only on the meek sleep of male countenance?
would you stand vigil, would you starve as they do?
* * *
Constance Merritt's debut volume, A Protocol for Touch, received the 1999 Vassar Miller Prize in Poetry and was a finalist for the William Carlos Williams Book Award. That success led to other honors: a grant from the Rona Jaffe Writers' Foundation and a fellowship from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Her new volume, Blessings and Inclemencies, while continuing the lyric preoccupations of her earlier work and maintaining her love for the binding rhythms of blank verse, moves farther into an exploration of psychological interiority and the self's struggle to create itself through language and touch.
At the center of Merritt's poems is an existential loneliness, which is represented over and over. "Because inner space is vaster," she writes, explaining her deliberate focus on the close-up, impinging edges of the external world:
She knows grief: a close room without windows,
Closed throat, the fetid smell of fear,
A dusty corner where a child is crouching,
Dull and deep boneache from lying in
All day. Landscapes where nothing moves.
Even if readers do not know that Merritt is blind, it does not take long to note her preference for tactile and aural imagery over the visual. Among a contemporary poetry clogged with the visual, Merritt's imagery calls us to it like the sounds and scents of an enclosed garden, wafting its sweet invitation up over tall walls. Her world is one of voices and songs and the sounds of weather.
So you see, there were nets, a song's a net;
It hauls you out of Time, out of whatever
Broth you're stewing in.
("Song at the Edge of the Sea")
It is also, by necessity, handmade. "Falling from great heights," she writes, "We take hold / of what's at hand." ("Song at the Edge of the Sea") Learning from or through the physical self in this poetry is not only about the transient ecstasies of sex. Rather, it is a whole-body learning that Merritt counsels, an invocation to the fullness of all experience: "Enter the water, let the body drift / To where the hurt is deepest."
* * *
Like Merritt, Martha Serpas is a quiet, thoughtful poet with a love of simple diction, conventional form, and strong, regular rhythm. Her first book, Côte Blanche, while not an award-winner, got the nod from no less than Harold Bloom, who wrote a lavishly praising introduction for it. Comparing her virtues to those of Elizabeth Bishop, he proclaimed her a "Catholic devotional poet from South Louisiana," a description that seems far too constrictive for a poet of her range and interests. (In his blurb for this new book, Bloom promotes Serpas as a "Cajun visionary.")
Like the other poets under review here, Serpas appears to have suffered no anxiety about how to follow up the success of her first volume. Other poets, pigeonholed by an influential literary critic as regional and religious, might have shied away from including any corroborating subject matter in their subsequent volumes. Not Serpas. The Dirty Side of the Storm is a gorgeous and brilliant book-long meditation on the perpetually eroding landscape of south Louisiana, "the steady vanishing / of your birthplace before your eyes." ("A Corollary") (The poems, with one exception, were written before Hurricane Katrina, which makes the loss, both actual and incipient, even more intense.) "Everywhere something strives to overtake something else," she writes, in "Fais Do-Do," of the constantly shifting and always threatened wetland environment. Even before Katrina, permanence there could only be a fantasy, and "a future with hope" for more stability and less loss, is as insubstantial as "bread crusts on water." ("A Future with Hope")
Serpas's greatest gift is for description of this landscape, and she gets all the details right. A road is "all caked dust and oyster shells"; a crescent moon is "a chinstrap"; the roots of a tree are surrounded by a "rustling skirt of palmettos." This landscape is in Serpas's bones, a point 'that reaches its culmination with her lament, "If only I could give the land my body."
I would lie against the marsh grass and sink,
muck enfolding me, and welcome the eroding Gulf—
handful by handful, carrying us away.
Anyone who has body-knowledge of the geography of which Serpas writes will understand her use of fabric imagery: a "black velvet" landscape; "rain on the river's vinyl surface"; a "pink-taffeta-ball-gown" sky; "gabardine party / dresses: [of] azalea and bougainvillea"; lacy frivolities of Spanish moss, tree roots, and dangling vines. These richly present tactile images provide a link between her abstract ruminations on loss, fate, and human responsibility and what can only be described as her lust for her native landscape. Her homeland is a place so sensual that it enters us not only visually but palpably. When we "touch" it with our eyes, it touches us back, its warm waters and heavy airs "collud[-ing] / To press their dominance into us. ("Prasada")
The catch is that in the midst of making love, it disappears. Perhaps we love it because it is disappearing: "Lord, Lord, we should own nothing," Serpas writes, in "To the Landlady." She works through this idea in "Decreation," an extraordinary six-part sequence with an epigraph from Simone Weil, who said, "We must be rooted in the absence of a place." Says Serpas,
Woman's Review of Books
We cannot have
What we most want because wanting itself holds us back,
Longing occupies the space of our being,
The oceanic space before we were cut free.
Wellesley Centers for Women, Wellesley College
Editor in Chief: Amy Hoffman
Poetry & Contributing Editor: Robin Becker