Posts Tagged ‘What He Said the Russians Say

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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