The Protean Brain: Joanie Mackowski’s View From a Temporary Window

Christopher Robinson

Pitt Poetry Series. University of Pittsburgh Press: Pittsburgh, PA 2010. 72 pages. $14.95.

View From a Temporary WindowInspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses, many poets recycle his imagery or cast his plots in contemporary language, but Joanie Mackowski isn’t interested in recycling. In View From a Temporary Window, she taps the source of theMetamorphoses, the “great viscous / subterranean pools of their first form.”

The trick, I think, is that Mackowski shifts the perspective of the seer (as Ovid does with gusto and alacrity), rather than simply transforming what’s seen. In the first section of “Case Studies in Metamorphosis,” for example, a woman melds with her car (“her metatarsals twined / with the pedal and wove with the pistons”), but the poem doesn’t end there. “According to some,” the car “pulled up at last in the Sudanese desert,” though “some others” say that it “arced like a gull over the guardrail,” the woman’s face gleaming with “epiphanic pleasure.” But “further questioning” reveals that the viewers could have seen their own reflected faces. This poem is a microcosm for how the book as a whole operates: emotive transformations, within and between poems, happen through fortuitous and often arbitrary shifts in perspective, by looking throughtemporary windows.

The consciousness that apprehends an external transformation is itself transformed: Mackowski becomes a Gulliver, a mosquito, a stegosaurus, a “mercurial bead” rolling over the enormous earth, a “mannequin’s immaculate pubis.” By continually shifting her mode of seeing, Mackowski stalks the self. And for her, the self (her consciousness) is the brain. It is no wonder then that images of the brain, which proliferate in these poems, transform along with the myriad perspectives they represent. And where the outer transformations retain a unity of self, the inner are often particulate: the brain becomes a flock of grackles settling in a tree, “a cross between a fungus and a cloud,” a beanfield, a buttoned thing.

Mackowski’s language shifts with these transformations, moving through Hopkins’ kinetics, Plath’s distortions (Mackowski sees a hummingbird as a “flying hypodermic”), and the casual, nonspecific exposition of Edson or early Strand (“A woman met a man / and decided to keep him”). She also makes use Richard Kenney’s rim-rhyme, rhyming individual syllables within words, such as “gorGEOUS gaze” and “rearranGES” or “escarpMENT” and “absent-MINDed.”

At times, the poems suffer from overwrought acoustics (“the iliac crest’s fertile crescents redolent / with onions”). And there are a few tired endings with flowers and birds, and moments when the theme ofidentity-in-flux is too overt to be moving. But these faults are isolated and most of the poems are not only formally stunning, but deeply felt. Take these lines from “Prayer,” an elegiac sonnet:

There’s too much to want never to contain.
That the backbone beanstalk shoots up through the tiny
roof that I stand for, that I’m never too cluttered
with mud to reflect: for the tongue grows tired
of holding up the sky.

The artifice here is subtle, but it is not tenuous: Mackowski forges a sinewy bond between the seedpod in the skull and that “flawed / internal combustion” in the chest.

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