A version of this may appear in Redactions: Poetry & Poetics issue 14.
Black Lawrence Press has released another fine collection of poems. This time it’s Laura McCullough’s Speech Acts – an exploration into the language and experience of poetry. Yes, language. And McCullough deliberately makes poems about language. Oh, but they are fun, and they aren’t some intellectual bullying of the reader or some masturbatory ego-stroking of the poet’s cleverness. No. These are fun and enjoyable while maintaining integrity.
I am getting bored of the intellectual poetry that is void of experience, which is why I like McCullough’s newest collection, because her poems can be intellectual while maintaining an experience.
The first section of Speech Act does this well by being sexy and showing the sexiness of language. It’s as if the first section announces to the reader: “Pay attention to language in this book. I’ll give you sex up front, but come the second section I’m gonna give you more. I’m going to give you poems in the second section that are strong on their own, and if you read the first section, they will gain new depths. I’m telling you something more is going on down below. Dear reader, you will go down on these poems like you are going down to perform fellatio on the poem, and the poems may be ‘more than the mouth can handle’, and in a good way.” Even if you didn’t know that, you’d realize it in the poem “Crucifix Block” in the second section, but I’m getting ahead of myself, so let me explain.
The first section of the book is about language and the sexiness of language, but it’s also about the consciousness of language or the self-consciousness of language and of reading a poem.
What Burns I want to kiss the mouth of another language, feel the small muscles electric and tingling around their vowels, the consonants swallowed, the silences like small maps of a small engine that rests on both of our lips. Chomsky said language is too difficult to deduce by attention to repetitions, but I will repeat this exercise until your tongue feels like my own and the spittle of apprehension collects in the pit of my mind. Your reason isn't all I care for; when you speak, the air is shaped into momentary volcanoes, the ash drifting into my eyes, blinding me, so I can finally see vowels that float in the air like ash, like snow, searing and momentarily illuminated.
On a sexy level, that’s like getting to first base, but I think the point is clear. The poems examine language and use the lens of sex to zoom in even closer, especially the home run poems, oo la la.
In the second section, the self-consciousness disappears. The poems become more experiential, like “Crucifix Block.” In this poem not only do you symbolically go into the unconsciousness by diving underwater with the whales and holding your breath of consciousness, but the poem moves with leaps, the kind of leaping I like and celebrate – the haiku leap, the jumping-with-sensation leap. The type of leaping that can’t occur if you are self-conscious. And there are two of these leaps in this poem.
Crucifix Block Today, the humpbacks have made a comeback, and still we know so little about them. We don't know why they hold their breath and go still underwater or why they gather off Hawaii; we do know only males sing the famous songs and change them each year. We know the males rise up out of the water, their bodies tall, the tails submerged, their fins extended like the cross. Scientists say this is to block other males from charging a female, but I don't buy it, it's too grand, too high out of the water, the mating dances far below. Whales live in a world they hold their breaths to survive in. We breathe the details of our lives like oxygen isn't the endangered species it is. A fog has rolled in, and someone's been disappeared, no charges filed, and none of us are singing, writing letters, or even complaining at all.
These leaps are so below my consciousness, so below self-consciousness that I can’t quite explicate what the poem is trying to say, but I can tell you what the poem is doing. The first part reminds us of how the humpback whale almost went extinct. It shows us how the whale breathes, and it shows us sex acts – sex acts explained by a scientist and McCullough. The scientists give a practical answer as to why the whale behaves as it does – it’s a mating ritual. McCullough, however, gives us a grander explanation, a religious explanation. She explains it as a ritual of joy. A rising up to the gods, almost. A holy hosanna. Look at that those two lines:
We know the males rise up out of the water, their bodies tall, the tails submerged,
There are three prepositions in a row interrupted by a line break. You might think McCullough should get rid of “up” as that is implied by “rise.” But read it again, aloud, and with imagination. The “up” makes the humpback whale rise higher. Then higher still with “their bodies tall.”
I can’t remember when I’ve seen three prepositions strung together like that while being successful and adding to the poem’s doings and meanings.
But back to the leaps. Back to the experiential and unself-consiousness. The first leap happens with:
We breathe the details of our lives like oxygen isn’t the endangered species it is.
The poem makes a leap from whale world to human world. What makes the leap work is the oxygen, the breathing. It connects the first part of the poem with the second part of the poem. The scientist helps the bridge, too, since he is human, but he is the self-consciousness, the self-conscious world we’ve been in. At the same time, he is in the whale world. That leap takes us into the human world.
The next leap takes us into the unknown, the lost, the “disappeared.” It’s almost like a movie scene, too. This is the experiential. The lack of self-consciousness. These last three lines feel right. The poem closes shut tightly and snugly. My body and extremities feel good about the poem. They embrace the poem. They say, “Yes. I get it. Wonderful.” My conscious mind, however, is a bit lost. It can’t seem to explicate. It thinks, “Maybe it has something to do with singing and rituals. Does singing and writing and complaining do something. Are the whales not extinct because they sing or because we wrote about them or because we complained when they were almost extinct and then they were brought back from extinction?”
Is this how the book works? Is this “the ars poetica hidden in the agenda”? Will the third section end up:
[. . .] breaking the sky into component parts. Everything is reanimated, but, like some crazy reincarnation, you can't ever be sure if the original thing is retained ("Beauty, I Said")
The third section moves like good poems do – just moving in and out of consciousness and unconsciousness, moving in and out of water, in and out of breathing, in and out of sex, as she says in “Animal Engine:”
"It's the third element that matters, the one that completes the equation, that computes to love." This engine gone still hums hot underneath us.
Where “engine” is sex and the momentum generator of the poems. The question of the third section:
[. . .] Is there such a thing as beauty if we're not aware of it? ("Beauty, I Said")
After reading the second section, the answer is “Of course there is.”
“So that’s, cool,” my inner voice says. “There’s a dialectical movement between the sections, but do the poems work?”
Yes. And what’s important is that there is something new happening in these poems. A new type of engagement for the reader with the poems. It’s an engagement that explores both the experiential and self-conscious involvement of the reader. The poems are indeed Speech Acts. They are poems that act on you and ask you to act back.
These poems show how McCullough’s:
[. . .] body was fertile, then not, then fecund, again, with language. There's a connection between the throat and vagina. ("What Can Happen in the Dunes")
I feel like this is a significant collection of poems for McCullough as she seems to be on the edge of doing something wonderful. These poems are her exploring poetry, her poetry, and her speech acts. The exploration is fun, and Speech Acts is a fine book of poems that I recommend to any reader or writer of poetry. I also await her next book, where I think she will really create and share something truly wonderful. That’s a tip to you Black Lawrence Press – Make sure you hold on to Laura McCullough because her next collection of poems is sure to be something even more special than this collection.//