Astoria

 by Malena Mörling
University of Pittsburgh Press 2006
Reviewed by Melinda Wilson

4

Dead All Over 

 morling cover

Malena Mörling’s opening poem in Astoria, “If There is Another World,” is the best in the book.  In it the speaker explores the many worlds that exist within the one world we all live in, concluding that we don’t need to leave this world to find another, and that we certainly shouldn’t wait until death to do so:

Especially since there is a kind of moth
here on earth
that feeds only on the tears of horses.
Sooner or later we will all cry
from inside our hearts.

Who knew? This odd and charming fact coupled with the last two seriously reflective lines make for impressive lyric. With this poem of inspiration and assurance as the opener—one might even see it as a call to action—I expected more in the same vein, but things only got darker. And though the opening poem deals with death to some extent, it does more for the cause of living than it does to examine the possibility of an afterlife. Quickly though, death becomes the subject of and motive for Mörling’s poems.

But before Mörling delves into the aphotic zone she has a short poem called “A Story”(followed by one called “Becoming a Coat” which I mention only because at first glance I read it as “Becoming a Goat” which of course would be a million times better). “A Story” deals with what we hide from the world, our secrets, rather than what the world hides from us—or more accurately, what we are often too ignorant to find. I bring up this poem for the sake of discussing one incredible image:

the rats you once saw standing
on their hind legs
at the dump
late in the dark.

Though I can’t help but picture Templeton here, what interests me most about the lines is what is left untold. What was the unnamed “you” doing in the dump, late and in the dark? That’s the secret, and what is left to be imagined is undoubtedly the most interesting part.

Now, back to death. In “A Wake,” Mörling details a conversation with a friend who has just been to a wake. The friend sounds happy, content with the way his dead friend looked—and beyond that, content with the way he left this world. He explains the deceased was an alcoholic that, despite a number of attempts to give up drinking, always returned to it and ultimately chose his own end. There is something to be said for controlling death in this way, some appeal that comes with power, though by the poem’s end even the speaker doesn’t sound satisfied. She brings up a take on death familiar from Lorca—that it’s a beginning instead of an end, a true celebration. By now, the idea of death as a celebration, though encouraging, is far too conventional to be inspiring. 

Early on in the collection is a poem called “Wearing a Death.” Like “A Wake,” this poem is familiar and too predictable. The idea is permissible, but the approach is fair at best. The whole poem is in the title; we wear death like an accessory despite its inevitability. The wordplay in this poem is perhaps the most inconvenient for the reader: “Not the sole of a shoe, a soul.”

I don’t mean to give the impression that Mörling can’t or doesn’t succeed with the Death Poem. She does and sometimes in the most difficult fashions. One example is “Traveling.” Here is the first stanza of this two stanza poem:

Like streetlights
still lit
past dawn,
the dead
stare at us
from the framed
photographs.

Eerie. You may say it’s been done before and you’d be right, but it’s done well here. The streetlights still lit past dawn take on a sort of extraterrestrial life, and I turn all the photographs in my apartment face down for the day. The idea that the dead are still traveling through time makes death more appealing somehow; death might be interesting if we get to see what happens next.

Mörling is best when she takes death and doesn’t worry about the fact that it is an overwrought topic to begin with, when she just lets it consume her. This is when the refreshing lyric is formed. Too often her speaker is predictable, fearful of death and overcompensating with bravery—like Jack in “Above the Expressway” who nobly wishes to be thrown into ocean when he dies so the fish can eat him. When Mörling is able to look at death from afar, when she’s vague and mysterious about lifelessness and the fact that she’s still living, her verse is most stunning:

There are shadows of scarecrows on the earth
that rise at noon
and vanish into the wilderness
of their own hearts.

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