“Before they opened me”: Affinity, Difference, and Marianne Boruch

Dora Malech
May 15, 2017
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Marianne Boruch begins her new long poem “Keats is Coughing,” published in the April 2017 issue of Poetry, with an epigraph from Leonardo da Vinci:

Everything is made of everything.

 In another long poem of hers, the title poem of her 2014 collection Cadaver, Speak, published by Copper Canyon Press, the persona of the titular cadaver posits the seeming opposite:

I loved metaphor
though nothing’s really like anything else. 

There is much to love about Marianne Boruch’s work, and much to write about it, but I was particularly tickled by discovering the explicit articulation of the push and pull of this dialectic embedded here in poems that span several years. It frames both her work and poetry’s broader work of navigations, interrogations, and celebrations of affinity and difference.

The whole of “Keats is Coughing” both revels in and questions the connections that imagination and poetry afford, overlaying and yoking a trip to Rome and a trip to Alaska. “All things being equal. But they’re not,” muses the speaker of this poem, echoing the sentiments of the earlier poem’s cadaver persona when considering the personal resonance (versus the empirical veracity) of metaphor, and enacting Yeats’s “quarrel with ourselves” (the source of poetry, in contrast with rhetoric, which springs from the “quarrel with others”). Later, she lays out the quarrel with herself even more explicitly:

I admit: a ridiculous layering, Rome in Denali.
Just because? Because I went to both in short order?
Two continents, an ocean apart. My mother
loved hand-me-down expressions –
never the twain shall meet.
They do meet.
                       To repeat: that’s civilization for you.
Happenstance and right now drag along
future and past
                        and why the hell not
the Denali, the Rome in any of us, no two
states of being more
unalike, worn-out compulsion
to collect and harbor, piece together,
                                                         stupid into
some remember machine.

While the poem presents itself as the layering of past and present specifically through location (the lens of Rome and Denali), Boruch seems to implicitly present a kind of meta-layering of her own creative life as well. “Cadaver, Speak”‘s cadaver herself seems still present, haunting (in a positive sense) Boruch’s new long poem, part of the work of this “ridiculous layering,” even after its (her) own book’s closure. In the third section of “Keats is Coughing,” Boruch writes:

You find the fossil record everywhere. In woods,
tundra, under streets, in cadaver labs.
                            Not those bright transparencies,
wistful orderly page after page in
biology, a lie, a kind of flip-book romance.

(Again, the cadaver lab; again, the “lie” that anything is like anything else, though here, in this new poem, the lie is both the lie of art, and – in this particular section –  the lie of the natural world schematized and sanitized.)

It’s the one big mess of us
in us, the generous extraordinary dead prove that,
signing a paper, giving themselves away
                                       to be cut, disembodied for
the knowing it,
sunk to their chemical depth in some afterlife, opened
on a table by kids really,
                                      belabored doctors-to-be, our
shabby shared wilderness to untangle,
bones   joints   arteries   valves,
                                                  The Dissector
in hand, weirdest
how-to book on the planet.

Here, we are implicitly asked to compare and contrast the work of the poem with the work of “the dissector” – what might the weirdness of a poem also teach us of “how-to” dismantle and connect, observe and understand the world and life around us?

The second line of Boruch’s new poem begins, “Fair to admit . . . ”

And later: “I admit . . .”

Both instances of the word “admit” are used here in the sense of confession, but consider also the resonance of the secondary definition of the word: to allow entrance. The work of these poems seems to be both kinds of admission, both kinds of opening. From “Cadaver, Speak”:

The body – before they opened me – the darkest dark

must live in there.



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