In this installment of “One Book, Two Takes,” poet Pepper Trail and I both review Maureen McLane’s This Blue, a finalist for this year’s National Book Award for Poetry. Pepper and I had no idea what the other reviewer would write, or whether the other even liked the book—a “blind judging” method that, I hope, helps explore very different aspects of the same book.
Reviewed by Pepper Trail
Picking up This Blue from Amy Miller’s dining room table, I was fortunate to open it to “Glacial Erratic,” a fine poem that mixes formal declaration with shreds of overheard conversation to produce a vivid snapshot of our anxious American moment. I was hooked, and was happy to accept Amy’s suggestion that we write independent reviews—even though I’ve never reviewed a book of poetry.
McLane’s National Book Award nomination for This Blue meant that the book was sold out everywhere when I tried to order one, and it was a couple of weeks before I got my own copy. When I did, I was rather bewildered by the diversity of voices in the collection—a quality that Frank Bidart in his back-cover quote describes (not very helpfully) as “luminous fragments—the shattered mirror that everywhere reflects a light-filled ungraspable whole.”
The poems in this collection are difficult to classify—lacking, say, the plainspoken humanity of Ted Kooser, the gravitas of Robert Pinsky, or the prickly wit of Tony Hoagland. McLane’s strength lies not in a cohesive style, but rather in her restless intelligence and observant, glittering eye. Almost all her lines are short (“Terran Life” is the only exception, and it provides pleasures that make the reader wish she allowed her muse to slip the leash more often). But McLane’s themes—and, I think she would argue, our cultural moment—call for fragmentation. Certainly Emily Dickinson showed us the jolting epiphanies that can be created by fractured diction, and McLane is capable of Dickinsonian moments: “I shared a skin / with my skin. / I was in / my life not of. / I hovered above.” (from “Incarnation”).
This Blue is comprised of five sections, and after several readings a thematic structure emerges, a search for meaning that begins with rather adolescent demands for answers in Section I and evolves by Section V into something like wisdom (though I’m sure McLane would wince at that word). The middle section, III, begins with references to Dante and his search for meaning in The Divine Comedy, a search he began “midway in my life’s journey.” Making herself perfectly clear, McLane follows this with her poem “Mezzo,” meaning middle. Poems in this section reference not only Dante, but Pound, Yeats, and others, as McLane looks for her guide, her Virgil: “No guide led me here / but Virgil and everyone / I ever met, in woods / books dreams in suburbs / the city the farm.” (“Today’s Comedy”).
At the beginning, Section I, McLane was not nearly so humble. In “What I’m Looking For” she lays it out: “What I’m looking for / is an unmarked door / we’ll walk through / and there: whatever / we’d wished for / beyond the door.” The predominant form here is the lyric, but a lyric often deliberately marred (a pigeon’s “common gullet,” a Persian boy’s “succulent anus,” the Fairie Queen as “glam tranny,” etc.). The poem’s questions are often directed to nature, but with the frustrated sense that nature cannot provide the answers, as exemplified by the idiot pigeons of “Aviary” and the inscrutable ferns of “OK Fern.”
By Section II, McLane has moved on to search for answers in human relationships. Sex is a frequent intruder (as in “Morning with Adirondack Chair”) or the main event (as in “Tell Us What Happened After We Left”). This section contains some of the finest poems in the collection, including “Incantation,” “Even Those,” and “Glacial Erratic,” but ends with death: “Strange thing / to survive to discover / you will live / until one day it’s over / no more to discover” (“Road / Here Now”).
The Dantean wanderings of Section III appear to produce mostly exhaustion, and Section IV attacks civilization and its discontents, especially environmental destruction and cultural hypocrisy. Bitterness is the tone: “The body? My amplified / brain’s going haywire / not to mention / my juiced-up tits / and pumped lips. An army / of amputees marches / on Dacron prosthetics / the military should do better by. / I was nostalgic / until I got over it.” (“Things of August”).
And so it was a considerable relief to find a wealth of beautiful poems—melancholy and elegiac, yes, but beautiful—in the final section. In language, McLane finds the strength to go on: “In this our post-shame century / we will reclaim / the old nouns / unembarrassed.” (“Horoscope”). There is an indirect answer to the direct question of Section I’s “OK Fern” (“Tell me what to do / with my life”) in Section V’s “Local Habitation”: “Here’s wonder’s / best kept secret / Don’t leak / your want.” It is the asking that keeps us alive. The lovely final poem “Envoi” acknowledges the losses that are the stuff of our lives, but finds consolation in the beauty of the world: “I noticed today under a tree / nobody was singing to me / but oh there was singing / and there was that one tree.”
I’m grateful to Maureen McLane for these songs, and glad that I took the time to discern the harmony beneath the surface crackles and hiss of This Blue.
Pepper Trail’s poems have appeared in Windfall, Cirque, Comstock Review, Atlanta Review, Kyoto Journal, and other publications, including the anthology What the River Brings: Oregon River Poems. His essays appear regularly in High Country News and Jefferson Monthly, the magazine of Jefferson Public Radio. His poem “Syllabus for the Warming World” was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Cascadia Review. He lives in Ashland, Oregon, where he works as a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Reviewed by Amy Miller
Poets are like Play-doh: When we come in contact with poetry that has a rich, distinctive voice, we tend to pick up its imprint and knead it into our own work. So, workshopmates, be warned: I’ll be sounding like Maureen McLane for a while.
In a time when the pared-down line is a critical darling*, This Blue offers a master class in brevity. McLane does a wonderful thing here: She offers the reader just enough bread crumbs to navigate her tight forest of words while handing out a generous amount of wry humor at the same time. But her subject matter is anything but light. Zigging and zagging from tragedy to dark comedy, these poems twist and punch with a fierce and playful energy, yet are, at their heart, deadly serious—climate change, destruction of nature, human civilization swelling to its critical mass, the fragile landscapes of love, and the specks and forces of the universe itself. Where we find ourselves in all that detritus is central to her theme—more question than answer. What do we do with all this? What can we do?
McLane’s gift is the way she delivers this often unsettling message: intricate, short lines stacked in columns; a lively, sometimes goofy musicality; and that rich vein of wit. Just when she’s lulled you into a gorgeous reverie, she hits you with an outrageous declaration: “Memory is boring.” Or in a painful account of a thorny relationship (“Late Hour”), she slips in a line that’s laugh-out-loud funny:
isn’t it time
to say the garden
on us? untended
roses the japanese
I’ve got to say, it felt good to laugh while reading a National Book Award finalist.
Through all this bumpy landscape, McLane makes you feel as if she’s walking alongside you as a friend, or at least a great drinking companion. At times, she veers into technospeak, with ampersands and abbreviations—“the eye / requires a horizon / Thoreau somewhere sd”—as if she’s texting you from a darkened movie theater. Other poems would hold their own at a slam, with hard rhymes like “carry”/ “tarry,” or a string in which she ends lines with “dead,” “said,” “head,” and “fled”—a sequence that would be disastrous in the wrong hands, but that she gets away with. Some poems share first lines, last lines, entire phrases—techniques that might get shot down in the average writing workshop, but that work in McLane’s world. This is a “Don’t try this at home” book. Or rather, it’s a celebration of bent rules.
But for all its playfulness, This Blue returns again and again to the landscape of loss. One section wanders the old cities of Europe with a sense of bemusement for the grand, vainglorious past, history brought down to an all-too-human scale. Elsewhere she reminds us that nature moves on without the human race—which brings a sort of solace, even if it’s a comforting indifference, a disinterest that nature takes in us. Always the underlying sadness:
Love’s in Gloucester
where the whalers once sailed
and the cod’s collapsed
but the sea the sea
calls to whoever
has ears for what’s leaving and left.
McLane has ears for just that. And in her terse, tight phrasing and attention to sound and rhythm—a shorthand that, just a few pages into the book, begins to feel like an efficient new language—she tells us what she hears.
* For a more extreme example, see Fanny Howe’s Second Childhood, also a finalist for the National Book Award.