Posts Tagged ‘liminal

03
Apr
17

“Love Waves” and Doors: Associative Pattern Making in Laura McCullough’s The Wild Night Dress

A version of this review (and a better edited version) may appear in a future issue of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics.

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Laura McCullough -- The Wild Night DressIn the “Series Editor’s Preface,” Billy Collins notes, “One requirement for poets is the ability to write about two different things at the same time. Seamus Heaney turns writing into a kind of digging. John Ciardi intertwines marriage and the structure of an arch” (ix). In the 2017 Finalist Miller Williams Poetry Prize book The Wild Night Dress (The University of Arkansas Press, 2017) , Laura McCullough does this, too, and she informs the reader up front in the Prologue’s poem, “The Love Particle,” “Love Waves is the name given to shocks / across the planet’s surface after an earthquake, what we / who are not at the epicenter actually feel” (3). She’s aware she’s going to share some intense personal experiences from her epicenter of grief and pain and her readers will experience her emotions in those Love Waves.

The two opening poems of “Part I: Passage with Hardboiled Egg” – “Feed” and “Toward Something Larger” – inform the reader what is at the epicenter of McCullough’s grief: her dying mother and her departing husband. Both create voids in her life, but more of the book revolves around her mother than her ex-husband. Perhaps this is because the bond with a mother is stronger than with a lover, which as a “long marriage / cycles predictably” (7), whereas with her mother, there appears to be a deeper intimacy of unspoken understandings, such as when her mother had “thrown up / in the water, perhaps a first sign.    Signs // in language are made of signifiers and the signified. / Mother and daughter are a kind of language” (19). McCullough will also build signs and symbols for the reader, which I’ll get to obliquely.

The poems in this collection are interconnected in the immediacy of one poem moving into the next and across the breadth of the whole collection. In fact, this book of poems would be a good one to use in an advanced poetry writing workshop where students are trying to organize their own poems into a manuscript. In the poem-to-poem movement, an image, word, or idea appears in one poem and the following poem, such as the appearance of “residue” and “bees” in “Soliloquy with Honey: Time to Die” (14-15) and “Across Which the World” (16), language in “I Am Calling You” (17), “What He Said the Russians Say” (18), and “Hunger Always Returns” (19), and “door” in “Ceremony of a Commonplace and Unremarkable Moment” (25), “Passage, Revolving with Boots” (26), and “Revolving Door” (27). Additionally, some words and images appear in poems far apart, such as “water,” “salt,” and “ocean,” but with the distantly echoed images, or conceptual harmonies, associations are being created within the self-contained universe of the book. For Instance, in “Water : Waterfall :: Equation : Proportion,” McCullough creates relationships between “soul” and “water,” “ocean” and “human,” and “salt” and blood,” so that later on when we read “water,” for instance, we have a built-in associative memory to “soul.” Certain words and images, like “water” and “soul,” then carry a relationship throughout the book.

With the image of “door,” which appears at least 12 times in the collection, it accumulates multiple associations, so much so that it behaves like a symbol. “Door” first appears in “What He Said the Russians Say” (18):

I was just a girl
who hadn’t lost enough to understand
            language
as a door we stand at pondering,
 

trying to get it open, say what we mean,
and how we are afraid that no one
is even on the other side. (16-22)

Here, “door” is an obstacle to expression, as well as a place of meditation, mystery, and fear. Later, in “Revolving Door” (27), she is able to see what’s on the other side of a door – a gardener “cutting leaves” (11). Still, there is a sense of being afraid, as she can barely see him, “his eyes meet no one’s” (8), and because “his sneakers were once red” (9). The once-red sneakers when coupled with the “weapon” he “wields” creates on ominous moment, because it feels like those shoes are covered in blood, but in fact, the blood-colored shoes have been soiled by his cultivation of plants and keeping them alive. The “door” here then begins to set up the feeling of a liminal place between one living world and another living world, so when we get to “Body a Doorway” (35), where McCullough wants “to make” her “body a door though which she [her dying mother] might pass” (9), we understand she wants to mediate her mother’s death and make it pleasant for her. However, the door still carries a fearful emotion, because “in these last seconds my [McCullough’s] mind rebels, / and I barely hold back the small selfish voice: No, don’t go. // Then it is done” (10-11). She couldn’t mediate for her mother. The moment was too overwhelming, too scary. She instead watched her mother pass away to “the other side.” Much later in the collection in “Lake of Sky: Refrain” (71), we see how McCullough “prepared” herself “for being / a doorway” by bringing her mother’s favorite books to her, as well as “myrrh,” “a battery operated candle,” a “scarf,” and other intimate items. But here the “door” works in reverse. While McCullough can’t cross over, her mother from the other side can, as she now has her mother’s “face inside of” her face (19). The image/symbol of the door gains new layers of meaning and associations as we move through the collection, as do other images. In essence, in developing self-contained associations and image/concept harmonies, she creates the “Love Waves” as well as she can through language so we can feel the ripples emanating from the epicenter of her experience.

Throughout The Wild Night Dress, McCullough is in the crosshairs of two griefs while attempting to stay whole, and her writing of this book, so it seems, is an attempt of making a new wholeness for herself amid the absence of her mother and ex-husband. As you move through the poems and the wake of “Love Waves” in The Wild Night Dress, be sure to have a box of tissues and leave your doors open.//

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McCullough, Laura. The Wild Night Dress. Fayetteville, AR: The University of Arkansas Press, 2017. Print.

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25
Sep
15

Quick Notes on Mark Strand

These are mostly notes and observations I am writing for myself as I prepare for the Contemporary Poetry section of my comps. I will try to do this with each poet I read. Maybe the notes will be useful to others, too. Again, they are notes and observations. They are not thesis-driven arguments.

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Mark StrandMark Strand (1934 – 2014) was born in Canada, but he is considered an American poet. In 1990, he his collection of poems Blizzard of One won the Pulitzer Prize.

I picked up on four themes while reading through Mark Strand Selected Poems (Alfred A. Knopf, 1991). The selections begin with poems from his first book Sleeping with One Eye Open (1964) and ends with The Late Hour (1978), plus some New Poems from 1980. What I picked up on is that Strand is concerned with living a life that can be reflected on without regret, the idea of time (especially the present), the intersection of the surreal and the real, and the “I” of existence.

The concerns with living an unfulfilled life are most present in Sleeping with One Eye Open and then in The Story of Our Lives (1973). In “When the Vacation is Over for Good” (Sleeping with One Eye Open), Strand uses vacation as a metaphor for life, and when one is on vacation, one sometimes acts as if “There was nothing to do,” which is a waste of a vacation and a life, especially when the unforeseen “weather turned” and then one really couldn’t do anything. And eventually the vacation is over and the vacationer is left wondering “why it is / We are dying,” the closing lines to the poem. “Violent Storm” (which is the next poem in the Selected Poems) comes to a similar conclusion after a dialectical movement between dream/fantasy imagery with the imagery of the real. And it ends, “Already now the lights / That shared our wakefulness are dimming / And the dark brushes against our eyes.” Strand will throughout his poems give examples of how to be active, especially in the present.

For Strand, the present “is a place / you’ve never been” (“Black Maps,” Darker, 1970), it is “emptiness,” and it is something to inhabit, if it can be inhabited. For instance, Strand has what I call “temporal loop” poems. These are poems you read and feel like you are moving through time, but by the end, you are where you started, and you not sure if any time has passed. This occurs in “The Tunnel” (Sleeping with One Eye Open), where the speaker sees a man “standing in front” of his “house / for days.” The speaker tries to get him to leave, but the stranger will not. The speaker then tries to protect himself and escape to his neighbor’s house by digging a tunnel. Eventually, he comes “out in front of a house,” and he gets the sensation that:

     I feel I’m being watched
     and sometimes I hear
     a man’s voice
     but nothing is done and I have been waiting for days.

The speaker and the man at the door are the same, despite the shift in time and place. Or there is the psychological thriller in “The Mailman”:

     It is midnight.
     He comes up the walk
     and knocks at the door.
     I rush to greet him.
     He stands there weeping,
     shaking a letter at me.
     He tells me it contains
     terrible personal news.
     He falls to his knees.
     “Forgive me! Forgive me!” he pleads.

     I ask him inside.
     He wipes his eyes.
     His dark blue suit
     is like an inkstain
     on my crimson couch.
     Helpless, nervous, small,
     he curls up like a ball
     and sleeps while I compose
     more letters to myself
     in the same vein:

     “You shall live
     by inflicting pain.
     You shall forgive.”

This poem is from Reasons for Moving (1968). This looping idea and uncertainty of presence in the present will really come into full being in “The Untelling,” the nine-page poem from The Story of Our Lives, but more on that later. The poems that play with time and try to define the present are also poems that blend the perceived with the misperceived and how the misperceived becomes real, much like he does with the surreal and real imagery he uses.

The intersection of the surreal and real is introduced in the title of his first collection: Sleeping with One Eye Open, so as to suggest the real (one eye open) and dream world (sleeping and surreal) coexist. Often the poems move in a dialectical movement between the real and surreal, such as in “Violent Storm” (Sleeping with One Eye Open) or in “The Man in the Tree” (Reasons for Moving, 1968). Often after alternating between surreal and real imagery, there is a moment of analysis, but eventually, the reader (or the speaker, maybe) are left wondering what is real or surreal, or how is the surreal successfully posing as the real, or how the surreal became real? For example, in “What to Think Of” (Reasons for Moving), the poem opens:

     Think of the jungle,
     The green steam rising.

     It is yours.
     You are the Prince of Paraguay.

The poem begins by asserting the imagination and the reality it can create, and it’s so real, one can own it like a prince. And as a prince, as the poem shows, the people worship you (the imaginer) and the “air” you inhabited as prince. In fact, you as prince are “almost a god.” The imagined realm, however, can come alive without your consent. It’s something you can’t fully colonize. Soon the “bats / Rushing out of their caves,” and the “coral snakes,” “crimson birds,” and “tons and tons of morpho butterflies” arrive “Like the cold confetti of paradise.” In this case, the reality is harsh, because the imaginer tried to rule over it like a prince. This poem is also a poem about how to inhabit a place.

Inhabiting a place, especially the place of “I,” is a significant theme in Strand’s poems, where things are often being filled or emptied and where there is liminal imagery like doors, windows, and horizons. Much of Strand’s poetry is concerned with what I is or can be. There is the concern with the physical I, such as in “Keeping Things Whole”:

     In a field
     I am the absence
     of field.
     This is
     always the case.
     Wherever I am
     I am what is missing.

     When I walk
     I part the air
     and always
     the air moves in
     to fill the spaces
     where my body’s been.

     We all have reasons
     for moving.
     I move
     to keep things whole.

He is not a field, but he inhabits the space that is the absence of the field. He fills the void of wherever wherever is not. He is presence where once there was absence. He’s always walking into what is missing and his presence is erased by the moving air filling his spaces when he leaves. And so he moves to keep things whole. However, as I read more of Strand, I find the physical I that fills spaces to be only a container of the life of I. The body is not the I but is a storage unit for the life of I. This sounds confusing, so let me give an example.

     The Remains

     I empty myself of the names of others. I empty my pockets.
     I empty my shoes and leave them beside the road.
     At night I turn back the clocks;
     I open the family album and look at myself as a boy.

     What good does it do? The hours have done their job.
     I say my own name. I say goodbye.
     The words follow each other downwind.
     I love my wife but send her away.

     My parents rise out of their thrones
     into the milky rooms of clouds. How can I sing?
     Time tells me what I am. I change and I am the same.
     I empty myself of my life and my life remains.

This poem is from Darker (1970). By the end of the first two lines, it’s as if he is without ego (how he interacts with “others”), without an id (as he has emptied himself of possessions and thus desire), and when he leaves his shoes, it’s like he’s walked out of himself. He tries to find himself through memories and through language, but those are all fleeting ways to make a self. He realizes he, but not his body, is his “change,” his growth, his experiences through time. And if he empties the shell of the body, his life still remains, in a way similar to a photograph. It’s the living that matters, not the body or appearance or presence of body. It’s what one does while inhabiting the body. It’s the body moving through the moments of time, for in each moment “There is the sleep of one moment / inside the next” (“The Sleep,” Darker, 1970) and each moment keeps birthing another moment until the final moment, which is death, which is “like another skin which I shall never be found, / out of which I shall never appear” (“The Sleep”). Death is another space into which one grows, as he says in “My Life,” “I grow into my death” (Darker, 1970). But if one doesn’t live that life in the body, then there will be regret.

Perhaps the one poem that brings all four of these themes together is “Elegy for My Father” (The Story of Our Lives, 1973), which has six sections. The first section is titled “The Empty Body.” This section along with section three, “Your Dying,” speak harshly to and about his dead father, who did not inhabit the one body he was given, as the opening lines indicate: “The hands were yours, the arms were yours, / But you were not there,” or later where he more clearly states it, “The body was yours, but you were not there.” According to the speaker, the father found pleasure in not filling his body with life experiences because, among many things, he “went to work let the cold enter your clothes. / [. . .] But nothing could stop you” from dying, and “You went on with your dying.” Slowly, I start to realize, or conjecture, that his father is the cause for Strand’s themes of living, the presence of I, and inhabiting the present. In section four, “Your Shadow,” real and surreal imagery enter the poem in the form of the father’s shadow, which in Jungian psychology is the unconscious part of the personality and everything that one cannot directly know about him- or herself. It is repressed substance, whether good or bad. In this case, it is the father’s will to live, for the shadow, after the father dies, is excited and “rejoiced among the ruins” of the dead host. The shadow is free and feels it can finally live. The shadow makes it presence known to the speaker as the speaker recounts what happened, “It sat on my shoulders. / Your shadow is yours. I told it so. I said it was yours. / I have carried it with me too long. I give it back.” (Where “yours” is his father.) Which to me seems like the speaker is saying something like, “I’ve been living enough and trying to fill both our lives (his and his father’s). Stop projecting on me. You had your opportunity to live, and now it’s past.” In the last section, “The New Year,” he tells his dead father in the winter of the new year, “Nobody knows you. You are the neighbor of nothing.” His father failed to fill the empty body with something.

Later in Strand’s writing, the surreal imagery occurs less often, and he also starts considering how language can fill the I or the present. In “The Untelling,” for example, the poem narrates how a character is trying to write and narrate and existence through writing, which continually fails in whole, but it does minutely affect his surroundings, or so we think until we arrive at the end of the poem, which is really the beginning of the poem again. We have entered another temporal loop, but his one is more of a narrative loop driven by language, which leaves the reader wondering, again, about perceptions and misperceptions and how they affect each other. This time, however, unlike the surreal-real interactions of his earlier poetry, it is the interaction of language with the real.

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The Cave (Winner of The Bitter Oleander Press Library of Poetry Book Award for 2013.)

The Cave

Poems for an Empty Church

Poems for an Empty Church

The Oldest Stone in the World

The Oldest Stone in the Wolrd

Henri, Sophie, & The Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound: Poems Blasted from the Vortex

Henri, Sophie, & The Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound: Poems Blasted from the Vortex

Pre-Dew Poems

Pre-Dew Poems

Negative Time

Negative Time

After Malagueña

After Malagueña

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