Same Life. Maureen N. McLane. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008. 128 pp. $24.00, hardcover.
Intruder. Jill Bialosky. New York: Knopf, 2008. 96 pp. $25.00, hardcover.
Maureen N. McLane’s Same Life and Jill Bialosky’s Intruder are erotic dialogues. But this does not mean they are “just” love poems. Like Plato’s Phaedrus, these books are as much speeches on love and desire as they are speeches on speech, on the possibility and limits of expression. When do we speak best, in love or out of love? Through the eyes of love or with dispassionate clarity? The lover speaks best of love, both Bialosky and McLane respond. But also, those who love speech can speak well of many things.
In Same Life, McLane studies the possibility of transcribing experience to the page. Her studies investigate technique and content: does experience require punctuation, capitalization, titles, scoring? As a reader, moving between these studies is a bit like walking around a clean, cool gallery and squinting at small paintings that turn out to be erotic. While you are critically asking “Now, what has she done here?” you also find yourself uncomfortably close to an intimate, messy scene. Yet her technique calls attention to itself. For the most part, she drops punctuation; though she risks “the danger of a simplified syntax,” the risk seems only appropriate. She aims, as she puts it in a poem title, at “notational / sufficiency”(98). She suggests that if precisely expressed, what is said tells us quite enough to know how it is said. Lived experience is over-determined and ambiguous and that is how she represents it. For example, the title “Catechism” adequately directs the reader to understand some of the sentences as questions without actually requiring question marks: “Did your mother like you / She was afraid of me / And the kindergarten / Glowed like the yellow sno-cone”(6). You could read this as a catechismic call and response or as a series of reflections prompted by one introductory question or remark. Who is speaking to whom? The adult McLane to her child self? Her adult self to another part of that self? McLane does not resolve this situation for her reader but exacerbates it. Without punctuation, each voice modulates the other, child blending with adult interlocutor, one voice coloring the other. Like Proust, to whom she alludes, the poet makes art of life by remembering the sort of child who later finds herself embroiled in love and love of speech. She’s the sort of child who used to spend time “diagramming sentences” and still takes pleasure in the technique of language.
But I never felt put at a distance by her technique, only drawn closer to her obsession with this particular experience of being swept up in love. Love takes over McLane’s experience. She admits there are other experiences — of place, of natural creatures, of dinner parties — but there is something about the experience of loving and being loved (or not) which consumes McLane. Her rapture echoes that of the mystic, Julian of Norwich, whom she mentions. But McLane’s beloved is quite unlike Julian’s divine love. McLane’s beloved is all too human. This erudite, witty poet has been consumed absolutely by the merely human, lost her head to heart like most manically mystical devotees.
She realizes this irony, and exploits it in the book’s title poem, “At the end a door,” which paraphrases William of Auvergne:
I walked through
and on the other side
I thought I’d look back
through the door
“that was another life”
here I am
on this side standing looking
same life (82)
Where the mystics could walk through this world to another one, McLane obsesses over this life, these bodies. Occasionally, this attention affects a Hopkins-like transformation of the everyday into the devotional — the whorl of an ear “becomes a night bell,” and birds’ songs become the speech of saints — but more often desire, like mania, amplifies to distortion even her most basic experiences. Like a religious zealot, McLane inspires first envy and then horror in her reader. Her short, Sappho-like poems elegize desire, but poems later we fear the nasty underbelly of this world-altering need. “Envoi,” the final poem, offers less narrative resolution than it performs a violent, strings-at-the-climax, send-off: “Go litel myn book / and blow her head off // make her retch and weep”(109). She lets her inner mystic speak, but the voice we hear is not that of someone lost in rapture but the shaking voice of someone wronged and holding a loaded gun.
As you read, do not forget to notice that this is Maureen N. McLane. That little N sits there in the middle of her name, lapidary initial jewel, and punctuates her name, a hinge between the private, personal “Maureen” and the public “Ms. McLane.” She personifies the initial N in a long poem, “From Mz N: the serial.” At a climax that happens terrifyingly early in the book, she teases the reader up a mountain, after her character “Mz N” and then, at the top — reveals that “life / can only get worse / the mountain / receding below them as they climb”(27). Reaching such a peak of love early in the book feels nerve-wracking rather than pleasurable; yes, you say, but what can you possibly feel after this? What else can you say? That, McLane shows, is exactly the problem. You will have trouble with feeling: you will travel, read philosophy, read Wordsworth, and it will all be highly unsatisfying. The ending will come, but she will not provide her reader with any more closure than she has experience.
Ms. McLane’s “Mz N” respects “children / who struggle every day / to get their words / and bodies aligned”(23). Mz N, too, struggles to line up these two lives: the life of the body, desire, and soul with the life of words, law, cities, and publicity. Alluding several times to Plato’s Republic, McLane comments on various cities and locals that she visits; she remarks not only on their political history but the history of knowledge that developed with them. These various political histories function as analogies for psychic strife. McLane overlays one regime, then another, onto her soul, looking for a pattern from the external world that could diagnose the situation inside. “Formless in the vast republic,” she tries to “grasp the metaphysical thing”(33). She expresses frustration with the French and their whole metaphysical tradition for “unlinking these concepts”(40): reason and right, thought and action, truth and goodness. This only “concludes in weeping,” a whole bodied action that has learned nothing from that tradition.
Through all these allusions, she keeps a sense of humor about her own erudite digressions. As if warding off excavation of allusion (like the one in this review), she says, “Your footnotes / bore me as do mine.” Enough with Plato, with Chaucer, and Wordsworth; this isn’t thought, this poetry. Her humor ranges from dry wit to the banally comic: from “The daily failures are piling in heaps / at the ends of all driveways / and no one is sure there’s recycling”(11) to the outright dirty litany of “cocks” in “Spatchcocked” that I won’t spoil by repeating. But be forewarned that “a spatchcocked cock / is killed plucked split and grilled”(70), and McLane is in a bad mood. You have to trust a person who can maintain that sense of humor while going all the way to “the blackest black”(21).
At the best and worst moments, McLane realizes, along with her reader, that this book has everything and nothing to do with the particular other person who has caused all her personal suffering. In the more directly confessional poem “Core Samples,” she reveals her own complicity in the relationship. But more to the point, she says to this woman, “you have birthed a wild obsession / that will torture more than you / all winter”(66).
One little “Envoi” then to my reader: do not read this book if you do not want to feel anything. Whether you’ve had one love or many or none, you will identify with some part of this experience. If you are a poet, you will identify with the impossibility and necessity of putting it on the page.
The same is true of Bialosky’s Intruder. Intruder: What a catchy title. Violation can be so seductive. What has been violated? Or whom? By whom? What was valuable or taken? Hooked by this title, with each mention of the “intruder” I was tempted further into the book. But in contrast to McLane, who wrestles with a frustratingly real lover, Bialosky faces an imaginary, elusive love. Bialosky is the poet’s love poet, struggling as much with her own imagination and desire to write as with a real other. Her “demon lover,” this intruder, comes and goes throughout the book, taking on the guise of a skier, a wind, a hart, an actor. The force of his presence torques the poet’s world, twisting it in and out of focus. Just when the poet admits she might not leave this lover, she replies, contradictorily, “I must go then”(3). The lover appears to her sometimes through her child and sometimes to her and her child who spectates, and occasionally intrudes, on this love affair.
As in a child’s experience, the imaginary world is superimposed on the real world of the poet. Bialosky watches as her son, struggling to play the violin, finds that “sometimes what he hears and feels are not always the same”(10). He has not yet caught on to how to match his desire for music to the technique of expressing it. The inner and the outer world do not yet match up.
At the same time, for the poet the external world matches her inner states eerily well. A bit like Emily Watson’s character in Kaufman’s Synedoche, when her life is on fire, her house literally catches fire. When she goes out into the woods in the winter, she sees only scenes that reflect her inner struggle: a deer struggling with her fawn but also between two bucks; even the mountain itself “is forever divided”(45).
She narrates the events of this struggle with hyper-self-consciousness, frequently referring to herself as “The poet,” and titles poems “The Poet Contemplates Reality” and “The Poet Confronts the Self.” But this self-referentiality is quietly witty and oddly self-effacing. While gently mocking the sincerity of the efforts within the poems, the narrating voice becomes humble and familiar to the reader. Like a good friend opening up over a glass of wine, she simultaneously confesses and minimizes her struggles. I empathize not only with the situation in the poem but with her struggle to admit that situation into poetry. She seems to ask, How can I do this? How can I write, again, about these over-treated topics? How can I write another “Portrait of an Artist,” as she puts it in one title. The poems themselves answer the aporia with their insistence.
Bialosky makes lists, gives commands, pauses on fragments, enjambs, and then does not. She tackles each poem like a situation; previous experience helps, but there is no telling what else might be required. If the situation requires intimacy, then she will woo you and say, “Don’t be afraid. Come closer. / It’s bath time”(24). If this situation requires adult tact, she will meet the hesitant older child with a casual “The Ping-Pong table is available. / Do you want to give it a try?” If it is time for reflection, then she will be silent and say only that “The wind changes direction”(25).
In “An Essay in Two Voices,” Bialosky alludes to a passage from Stendhal’s Love:
Perhaps under the transforming powers
of imagination, there’s evidence of a positive attitude toward you.
This is what Stendhal thinks of as the “second crystallization”;
and it is at this stage, he believes, that love becomes fixed. (62)
In Stendhal, at a certain point in loving, one crystallizes the loved one as perfect; every event in the world only confirms this perfection. The imagination intervenes to perfect the loved one. In Bialosky’s poems, love sustained depends on imagination. The risk, as for Stendhal, is not necessarily that love is not requited (though this is a possibility) but that it is imbalanced, substantiated by imagination, not by the actual other person. How do we know the difference between empathy and imagination? Between a caring indifference to the beloved’s faults and a willful ignorance of the real person?
In the end, the lover seems to be a bit of a distraction. Bialosky finds that she can only attend to her own little project of authenticity. She meets an actor, possibly attractive, possibly a beloved, but realizes with some bemused relief that, in this life, he does not attract her. He doesn’t mind acting, not being himself, confusing the other life with this life; by contrast, Bialosky appreciates that she is actually remarkably committed to this life which includes her identity as a writer.
Perhaps she’s even in love with it.