On The Bridge by Mary Austin Speaker

Andrea Syzdek

Bristol, UK: Shearsman Books, 2015. 88 pages. $18.00.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

Mary Austin Speaker’s second full-length book, The Bridge, is a delightfully surrealistic collection of prismatic, mind-driven poems which dazzle and surprise for the simple reason that they honor mindfulness and the observant eye. The Bridge differs from Speaker’s previous poems, particularly in Ceremony, where the tension worked best when it was quiet and suggestive; something revolutionary always operated under the surface. In The Bridge, these poems don’t stay underground: they bust up from the earth and out into the open world. They do what they want. They experiment with the stream-of-consciousness complexity of anarchy and the result is stunning.

The conceit of The Bridge goes like this: Speaker wrote a poem each time she rode the subway over the Manhattan Bridge. The work is stripped-down, but lyrical and poignant. There are no titles—sometimes it’s hard to know where one poem ends and another begins, and this makes them all the more exciting to read; they enact constant motion. This book does not rely on a singular “I”; instead the great engine of these poems is fueled by a “We” perspective so that no voice is privileged over the other: “We stand beside each other / and tightly hold our stories,” “We do not deny / that we push / on the bridge / as the bridge / pushes us” (46, 67-68). This last line is one of the great lines of the book; it works perfectly as a plainspoken proclamation of unified resistance.

Color plays an important role in The Bridge. Rather than an iron and steel, black-and-white environment, Speaker presents the reader with a world full of shape and color, starting with the cover art, which Speaker designed herself. An example: “yellow streaks / in the lit-up dark / and then the shock / of bluewhite day / and yellow cabs / a line of pink / a memory / of orange dawn” (31). Another example: “and so we close our eyes / across the bridge / if sleep has a color / it is the darkest blue / that lays beneath / the river’s silver- / brass-bright skin” (39). There are many more to marvel at, but the best use of color works in concert with the anarchic elements that wind through this book:

these are the year’s
darker hours
that we are moving through
above the sea of rooms
above the winking redblackyellow
and the redblack
yellowing blue (16)

For The Bridge, life consists of being propelled through a complex city system by an equally complex system of engine-driven machinery. And so the visionary eye of these poems combats the overarching systems with a powerful imagination, a blending of perspective and color. This is the sturdy anchor of the book: the mind’s ability to create its own vibrant world independent of a larger world dominated by oppressive metallic systems. In other words, these poems favor anarchy as a colorful, image-making experience.

Surrealistic images help punch up these luminously radical elements. Here is the most evocative example:

warehouses yawn
with empty lit-up heads
where brains would be
if buildings know
how to be in one place
for a hundred years
how do they
address us
blurring past (56)

The idea here is that industry, as a physical, solid thing, was built by humanity to endure but not to think. As a result, we consent to arrange our lives around a series of systems that have no regard for our humanity. Speaker is good at capturing this unsettling perspective in surrealistic terms. Also, as an ironic highlight, she plays with time. Time stamps are scattered throughout the book (6:38 PM, 9:28 AM, 7:09 AM, etc.); life revolves around subway arrivals and departures. Time is intensely specific and systematically constructed, like the train, the city, and industry. Consequently, we construct our humanity to these hard-edged structures.

However, what is most remarkable about the poems in The Bridge is that moments of individual eccentricity still manage to pop up out of the subway blur. Speaker finds ways to enhance solitary figures while the visionary eye is in transit. The first example is absolutely stellar:

the beautiful woman driving
the sanitation department truck
files her nails at a stoplight
files her nails in a ray of morning
sun the honey-scented flowers
are dying on their vine
and yesterday
the rain came down so hard
the streets were green for hours
the leaves so flat and wet (9)

First, the contrasts are fabulous. The beautiful woman and the sanitation truck; the dying honey-scented flowers and the wet, flat leaves; garbage and nature, sunlight and rain; these opposites are wholly unified with expert-level compression. This woman makes a brief appearance, but she is memorable. She not only drives a sanitation truck, she files her nails: such a wonderful detail! She is a sure and steady figure in a world of chaotic opposites.

Another great example occurs later:

everybody needs
an antagonist
says the man
in the green wool
hat his laughter
the color of trees
against the white noise
of the subway roll (60)

Again, readers will be surprised by the specificity and opposition of the compressed moment. However, in this instance, the man speaks and makes a case for tension, opposites pushing against each other. These moments illustrate what it means to participate in the dehumanizing social construct of subway transportation, while also satisfying the need to showcase individual eccentricities. They add another layer of complexity so rich and exacting that they leave the reader wanting more.

The Bridge is a refreshing read because it resists the pretension of a closed-off singular mind. It is outwardly celebratory. There is no overly constructed conceit. The poems exist as they are: fleeting but insightful, imaginative moments. In America, commuting is part of the daily grind, and it is a regular threat to individuality. This is particularly concerning to the visionary eye in the closing moments of the book: “I’d like to know what / exactly is American / about me a map / of my neural pathways / a list of my most / charged associations” (86). The poem doesn’t give an answer; it settles on contradiction: “this is not very American / but it is American” (89). Maybe that is the only conclusion these poems can come to: humanity is tension. And still, the best part about this tension is that it constantly reasserts humanity:

we are moving into a sky
the color of doves the color
of steel and rivers and concrete
it is 9:18 AM and the sky
is pretending to be dawn
drawing the clouds over its buildings
like a sheet to shut out the day
we should shout or sing out
what we want all the way
over the bridge (12)

The Bridge is a compelling and enlightening collection. Speaker explores tension, image, anarchy, and mindfulness in a simple, thoughtfully artistic manner while also engaging with the world through the perspective of an intelligent, down-to-earth, visionary eye.

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