by Cate Marvin
Sarabande Books 2006
Reviewed by Matthew Yeager*
“Anyway, Poets are Tough”
We all have pet scenarios we go to when we’re in need of a private chuckle. One of mine – for whatever reason – involves Marshall McLuhan and the seismic shift his career underwent following the publication of Understanding Media in the mid-1960s. One day the man was quietly grading literature papers in his office at the University of Toronto. The next, catapulted into the public consciousness (and still affecting a clip-on tie), he was delivering his beguiling, freely-associative lectures to the stupefied members of corporate boardrooms. Hailed as a genius (which he certainly was), McLuhan was viewed by industry moguls as a witch doctor, a man who stood alone on a previously undiscovered planet, an antennae-headed visitor from the future. “Can you help us?” they begged, and rummaged through his words, like raccoons through trash, looking for what might be of use.
No doubt the behaviors of CEOs had much to do with the boldness and suddenness of McLuhan’s declarations. He’d leapfrog from Joyce to Matthew Arnold to Toynbee to Shakespeare, then snap-cut to: “It is only today that industries have become aware of the various kinds of businesses in which they are engaged. When IBM discovered that it was not in the business of making office equipment or business machines, but that it was in the business of processing information, then it began to navigate with clear vision.”
Of course, like all authoritative statements with a theme of “once was lost, now am found,” the IBM quote possesses an innate attractiveness – perhaps especially for poets, who chronically suffer from feelings of being lost. It recalls a statement made by Ashbery in an interview many years back – something like: “Early on I used to think that I was writing about nothing; then I realized I was writing about Time.” As a poet, one reads such a quote and immediately begins thinking personally. “Well, if he’s writing about Time, then what am I writing about?” the poet asks of the nearest wall. “Could my true subject be different than what I think it is? Do I even HAVE a subject in the way Hopkins or Keats or Stevens did?”
Stevens tells us that the true subject of poetry is poetry. Easy enough. But his truer subject, the one that informs both his individual poems and his poetics as a whole, is the Imagination and its relationship to reality. At times it’s a lament at the fact that the imagination’s raw materials are innately limited (“The houses are haunted / By white night-gowns”). Most often it’s an expression of the imagination’s necessity in combating the fundamental poverty of existence, in making human life bearable. Keats writes primarily of the effect of art on himself – or more broadly, art on the self. As for Fr. Hopkins (the poet that Cate Marvin, perhaps even more than Baudelaire or Plath, most readily associates to), he had his subject as well. If one is dealing with an incarnate God, a perfected, sanctifying force that inheres in every thunderstorm and weed, in every cloud and crag, one must find the strength to comprehend and praise the horrible as a necessary feature of our world. Not praise the horrible as a catalyst for growth, or praise it as the foil-backing by which lovelier things can be known, but praise in itself.
Of course, it’s not every poet that has a single, identifiable preoccupation that necessitates, generates, and holds together the body of his/her work. It’s not like a nose that can be found protruding from the center of every face. For the most part, we find a major “subject” only in our best poets, and it only comes to light once you consider the role of form. Even then, it’s easier to sense than it is to compress into two or three sentences. And though all artists crave to navigate clearly, it’s probably not necessary for the poet him-/herself to know exactly what it is. Do we know what Hopkins thought he was writing about? Perhaps, as he never conducted an interview, he never had occasion to begin thinking along such lines. I’m sure I’m not the first to suggest it, but the situation of a person alone in his room at night is a suitable figure for the poet. If the light is on indoors, the world outside can see in, but the person cannot see out. Even if one succeeds in imaginatively assuming an exterior vantage point, perspective quickly returns to its nest.
I say all of this as preface to the fact that Cate Marvin is, to my sense, one of the few poets going who does have a central, dynamic issue that informs nearly every poem. In Fragment of the Head of a Queen, her astonishingly well-made second volume of verse, this subject has begun to emerge into clarity. Just as Ashbery did when he said his poetry was about “time,” we could almost boil it down into a single word. Control. Her poetry is about control.
On a first reaction, this might sound like a trivial matter compared to “Death” or “Time’s Passage” or “God.” We imagine someone death-obsessed as a morose teenager wearing all black, someone god-obsessed as a monk alone in a tiny room, someone control-obsessed as a meddlesome boss or a neat-freak spouse. However, it is not. In the sense I mean it, “control” is one of life’s central conundrums. At the heart of it is the fact that the items we cannot influence far outstrip in number and importance the items that we can. You cannot control natural disasters, car accidents, who your parents are, whether an interviewer will understand your sense of humor, whether your face is naturally handsome or ugly, emotions in regard to love, the behavior of politicians, or what disease will come upon you in old age. Meanwhile, you can control that your face is clean-shaven, that you are on time, that you vote, that you are diligent at your job, that you put items back after you use them, and that you remember to carry an umbrella. If all this does not seem fair, this is because it isn’t. It stinks.
Among other things, such a discrepancy is what Rilke is writing about in “The Man Watching” when he exclaims: “What we choose to fight is so tiny / What rages against us is so great.” In the story of Jacob–which Rilke paraphrases–the collective “what we can’t control” assumes the form of the Angel. It descends without warning, is mightier than we are, and picks a fight. Jacob fights back. He fights with everything he has, but his effort is a futile one. His loss is inevitable, but we’re made to understand that the fact he’s fought is worth something. The story could not be more counter to the prevailing American myth, which would want to re-write Jacob as vanquishing the angel, as Rocky did Ivan Drago.
To become tuned into the discrepancy between what we can and can’t control–i.e. to evolve the order of knowledge from the nominal to the experiential–ordinarily requires a trauma or a series of traumas. While it’s possible that a person’s unique bent of mind could accomplish such a focus on its own, this seems unlikely to me. It requires encounters with the uncontrollable, usually in the form of sudden and powerful events, major shocks to the psyche. From here, keened in, a person can begin noticing all that truly is outside of his control, circulating as if with a sticker gun. Can I control this? “No.” Can I control that? “No.” He might even feel bits of luck mixed in with the general feeling of helplessness and fear. (You could feel lucky, for instance, that your parents used reasonably proper grammar in your household, and that because the speech you learned to mimic helped you all during school, your self-esteem wasn’t as low as it otherwise would have been).
There is also a psychological formula to control that all of us follow. Any lay shrink could deduce it, though I suppose I wasn’t aware of it until I saw it enacted in these poems. I imagine I first encountered it as a teenager, on those occasions when my father would pick me up from baseball practices. He was a sick man, and by the mid-1990s, a decades-long combination of alcohol and psychiatric medications had eroded him to the point where the illness was visible. When he and not my mother showed up (and there was about a fifty-fifty chance), my anxiety and shame, my shame at my shame, would translate into a suddenly intensified focus, a viciousness even. Suddenly, so much seemed to be riding on my ability to hit a baseball. And I’d grimly attend to my routine, knocking honeycombs of dirt from my cleats, adjusting my batting gloves, prepping my eye by staring into the insignia on the pitcher’s cap – a trick, incidentally, that he’d taught me. Control, control, control.
Such a response is natural. We don’t often get to have a direct wrestling match as Jacob did. When confronted with a force we cannot control (and through that, a sense of simply how much is beyond our control), we turn to what small things we can and then control them with a white-knuckled intensity.
As a second volume, Fragment relates to Marvin’s first, World’s Tallest Disaster, in a way that makes a great deal of logical sense. Yet for some reason, I can’t think of a “first book-second book” relationship to which it’s exactly analogous. The reason for this would have to be the spiritual demands it places on the author.
Second books, in this day and age, seem to fall into one of several categories. Some read like seamless continuations of first books. In these cases, where the author has simply plowed ahead, the second book functions to establish that author’s particular poetics–almost in the way the second sentence of a “surreal” poem works to establish the rules of its world. (A dog is crawling across the ceiling. A woman tries knocking it down with the handle of her broom.)
Others, in the name of radical departure, attempt to throw off the approaches and mannerisms of their first effort. You see this response a lot of the time when a first volume is praised. It’s not necessarily that these approaches and mannerisms were a false direction, but the poet, craving the freedom of the undifferentiated cell (or at least the freedom he had before there was a document in the world out there representing him), needs to believe they are. Painters often burn their earlier paintings precisely because they are their earlier paintings. Down the road, this can pay dividends creatively. (We see this in Tennis Court Oath and, recently, though you can’t predict where he’ll go, in Dan Chiasson’s second book.)
Still other second volumes go the route of the “project” book. By this I mean that a decision is made at the outset that all the poems will be 20 lines long, or will center on a semi-pro football team from the year 1925 that a great-grandfather played on, or will be spoken by a fictionalized police chief. These books are sometimes wonderful and true to temperament, but in many cases you almost sense that the poet is avoiding something, as if he’s embarked on an extended cruise with his mistress and no telephones. Auden insinuates about Tennyson that some of his long “unreadable” narrative poems were manifestations of a subconscious desire to feel something other than the acute melancholy and desire for death that his lyric sensibility communicated to him. If so, you can’t blame Tennyson, not any more than you could for an occasional urge to remove his palm from a stove burner. But an analogy could be made to certain “project” books, which contain a generating device and can be made primarily with a poet’s craft and brains. Of course, all these varied reactions to the first book are precedent-setting for their makers.
What Marvin has done in Fragment of the Head of a Queen doesn’t exactly follow any of these patterns. She hasn’t repeated her first poems or dismissed them. Nor has she put her natural sensibility on hiatus. Rather, it’s almost as if she took the edge of her hand and used it to slide up every setting on a stereo’s equalizer. An overall sense of proportion remains, but all the qualities that defined World’s Tallest Disaster have been amplified. Her most frequent topic is still Eros (and with the Greek sense that love and madness are bedfellows very much intact), but here the content of the poems is darker, wilder, more violent. The situations are direr. To match and express this intensity, (to “reach and share” in Hart Crane’s sense), the language has become more elaborate, more sonically dense, almost Baroque in spots. The poems are also longer on the whole. And though it is her own, eccentric brand of strictness (her line breaks are visual, and her lines in a given poem openly aspire to the exact visual length on a page), the formal constraints she imposes are a certainly a good deal stricter. Thumbing through the volume rapidly, like a flipbook, and simply looking at the layout of the poems, you can’t help but be struck by how much order there is. It’s like a bird’s eye view of a gridded city.
Out of this interplay between content and form, a dialectic emerges. Imagine a person who can communicate both orally (content) and in sign language (form) simultaneously saying one thing with the mouth, the other with the hands. Or try to understand it like this: “a more out-of-control subject matter is counter-weighted by stricter formal control.” The net effect of all this reminds one that a scale will achieve balance so long as there is equal weight on each side. However, a scale with one hundred pounds on each side is quite a different matter than a scale with a metric ton on each side.
As you read through the book, there is an unusual feeling, not unlike coming upon the one building left standing after a city-leveling quake, that comes with finishing one of these poems–particularly those that seem more personal. This sense comes out of Marvin’s manipulation of the illusion of creative order, i.e. the illusion an experience drives the poet to the desk and shapes how the particular experience will be written about. The speaker is situated, again and again, in the aftermath of experiences that would seem to have mentally and physically destroyed her. She is subjected to sexual humiliation, physical assault, manipulation, the sudden death of a loved one, even the inability to express love at the funeral due to social restraints. Yet we see that her speaker hasn’t been destroyed. She is alive not only to write, but to write with a masterful control of the language. This is why the final line of “Muckracker,” which seems as destined for survival as any poem yet written by an American born after 1960, is so deceptive. “I have no loyalty and I have no pride,” says the speaker. Ostensibly, she is commenting on the tell-all nature of the poem’s content. Yet those who truly “have no loyalty and have no pride” do not carefully modulate internal rhymes, keep aloft multiple conceits, and craft stanzas as regular-sized as sidewalk blocks all while managing to tell a fully arcing tale. They don’t end up with poetry like:
Counterfeit! This is war; this is two spiders a child’s
dropped into a jar, scrabbling at the glass and flinging
their webs, each so intent on killing each other, the fact
that both are trapped has ceased to matter. O, blood,
blood, blood! Shall I, reader, be a tad more explicit?
They also, of course, don’t tend to quote Othello, come up with fitting metaphors that also make sense in terms of previously developed themes (the house the speaker and her partner share enters the poem throughout), then have audience-awareness to explicate their similes. Rather, they spew.
In an online interview with Redivider, when asked what this book was about, Marvin delivered a one-sentence answer: “It is largely about destruction of the self.” Theoretically, this is true. But what Fragment actually communicates is that there remains a part of the self, a kind of black box, that is essentially indestructible. Above all, this is trauma’s lesson. In practice, it can be a painful one, as the individual conscience secretly craves the self to be destroyed by what the conscience judges should reasonably destroy it. When a loved one dies–particularly suddenly and too young, against the natural order–a person often doesn’t want to heal, believing an inability to heal validates the love. Healing, on the other hand, represents a betrayal. The resulting shame is that the past, influential as it was, is not capable of continuing to overwhelm the present or the future. Emerson’s “Experience” is probably the great tract on this subject.
But strength is a virtue, the one necessary component of survival. As her speaker keeps emerging from the events to sing them in such exemplary verse, she wins our admiration. She also provides an example we might follow, an applicable model. Here it’s a confirmation of the logic “unless it kills me, it will only make me stronger.” This is a good saying. Of course, when an acquaintance has rattled it off to you in a time of true need, particularly without first framing it (“I know it’s a cliche, but…”), you’ve probably had an urge either to insult the person (if she’s a woman) or punch him (if he’s a man). But that is altogether beside the point. The stance toward experience the expression takes is one that can actually help us weather life’s difficulties. We so often forget–caught up in judging and comparing as we often are–that poetry can help us with this as well.
It’s admittedly tempting to go through all of Marvin’s work, like a Google search with keywords “Marvin” and “Control,” and then make a gigantic fuss over every finding that pops up. (This was my chief strategy for writing essays in college. Maybe it was yours as well.) I won’t go that route here–I promise–but I would like to bring up three relevant items from that same Redivider interview, which was conducted several months before Fragment of the Head of a Queen came out. Regarding World’s Tallest Disaster:
KR: Relatedly, weather imagery tends to show up a great deal in these poems—what does this signify to you?
CM:The issue is control, as the speaker wishes to manipulate the elements (along with the fate she desires to share with the much loved/loathed addressee of the poems).
This is self-explanatory.
KR: You write, “I don’t drink whiskey to relax” in “I Live Where the Leaves Are Pointed.” There seems to be a fair amount of whiskey in your poems—why is this? And do you have a favorite brand?
CM: Whiskey is a trope in WTD, suggesting romantic intoxication, madness, loss of control, and the visionary experience of living one’s life inside a poem. Different drinks have different metaphorical weight. Wine’s heady, gin is poisonous, vodka’s cold, and beer is plain boring. In real life, I’m a big fan of boxed white wine, much to the dismay of my more refined friends.
I might, as a member of the service industry, disagree with some of her takes on alcoholic beverages. (Vodka, for instance, is truly the boring one. It’s also a marketing ploy. In more than a few New York City bars, a bar-back’s preparatory tasks actually include funneling Absolut from 1.75 liter jugs into empty bottles of Grey Goose, Belvedere, Chopin, Stolichnaya, Van Gogh, Ketel One, et al.) But what the quote highlights is that the speaker is a creation of the poet, a mask, whose characteristics have been assembled carefully, albeit intuitively, with an overall effect in mind. As Marvin’s “mask,” in the tradition of Confessional poetry, is a changing one, a tendency exists to mistake it not being a mask at all. In all likelihood, it is questions like this whisky question, along with more general reactions to her first book, that have impelled her in Fragment to widen the rift between author and speaker. She accomplishes this by weaving in dramatic monologues (“All My Wives”) and imaginative poems (The Gawain-ish “Lying My Head Off”). Poems like these de-stabilize the “I.”
Marvin’s penchant for strict control also likely has something to do with her attitude toward the lens through which she’s read. Specifically, it seems to reveal a desire to overturn some of the prevailing stereotypes that accompany Confessional poetry. She states:
For some [the term Confessional] labels poems that rely on sensationalistic experience or extremely explicit personal details to attract a readership; for others, it signals a loss of control in terms of craft.
Is Marvin a “Confessional (or Post-Confessional)” poet? Definition is a much more difficult enterprise than recognition, and I truthfully haven’t read enough definitions of the term to feel qualified to put forth one of my own and then she how she fits it. Nor do such definitions ultimately matter. (Can’t we just call her a poet?) Anyhow, what’s clear from the quote and her poems is that she sees enough of poetry’s big picture (i.e. its long roots) to understand that a lack of formal control is a reaction to formal control. Like all reactive gestures in the arts, it will lose strength and dissipate into blandness once time has distanced the readership from the context of its revolt. And as far as lineage goes, the fifteen-to-forty line, free verse, “autobiographical” poem so common today (with its telegraphed “experience-to-nugget-of-wisdom” movement from a personal adventure in a garden or hospital room to a small epiphany) seems to have descended stylistically from the great Confessional poets. It’s like the conservative child of hippie parents, a domesticated dog with wolf roots.
Forgive me if that sounds judgmental; except when it is, writing poetry is not easy. And how. Barry Bonds, the much-maligned all-time home run leader, is infamous for chiding fans and media members for criticizing players in the Major Leagues. To even connect with the ball frequently enough to earn even a .230 batting average, Bonds points out, is something very few men can do. I’ve always liked how he does this. Likewise, anyone capable of writing any poem at all deserves, at very least, a smattering of applause.
I’d also like to point out how the dialectics of control enter into the content of the poems in Fragment. The issue is directly addressed, and frequently we see her speakers as openly struggling both against it and for it. Power is the ability to control. It is also the ability to be heard and not ignored. The powerful have podiums; the powerless have soapboxes and stumps. But also tricks.The speaker in “Muckracker,” wondering not only how to go about telling her tale but how to get us to pay attention, re-vests herself–in the post-Feminist tradition–with a form of classic feminine power. She assumes, in relationship to the reader, the role of the seductress:
How do I reply? And how shall I contend with
the fact, Reader, that this matter cannot mean
much to you, and that I, as author am required
to consider how to tell this tale in a manner that
will entertain you, despite having never met you
and having no way to know how to affect you,
get you to let me touch you all over, kiss your lips
then tongue your mouth open, move my mouth
down your neck to the valley of your chest, pluck
buttons off you with my teeth.
If this seems over the top–especially by the time the buttons begin being bitten off–it’s supposed to. Though she never attempts to carry a poem with humor, Marvin can be very funny. It’s not the kind of humor one finds in someone like James Tate, where laughter jumps out of you instantly as an airbag, but one that requires a moment of contemplation, one that creeps up. Here, reasoning pragmatically as an advertising exec, she’s poking fun at the fact that sex sells, and also showing how both sides are denigrated in the process. “Reader, I need you to listen,” she’s basically saying, “and I’m willing to do whatever I need to make it happen. But if I stoop, you better believe you’re going to stoop right with me.” Just think about this whole scenario: how is the reader, sans buttons, supposed to get home? Will the speaker deliver directions to the nearest Duane Reade where safety pins are sold, perhaps in a seductive purr, her face in the crack of her closing door?
In “Your Childhood,” the speaker is once again shown dealing with a force that is outside her influence. She is being stalked. Using personification, a rhetorical strategy most often trotted out these days to create publishable, Charmin-soft, idea-less poems (the wind begins rustling through my rough drafts; the wind takes long drags off my cigarette, that sort of fluff), Marvin manages to do something viable. Someone’s childhood–an ex-love’s, if we read contextual clues–is cast as a wandering, pan-handling low-life that tramps along after the speaker, accosting her, guilt-tripping her, and trying to fleece her of her money:
What’s next? Yesterday, the sign it lugged
begged for busfare. Today, it wears a cast fashioned
from newspaper. Tomorrow, it’ll ask if I have change
for a nickel.
The poem is also funny, particularly at the outset, but as it moves, it offers a serious and finally heartbreaking commentary on a phenomenon that anyone who’s ever been in a relationship will understand. When any two people meet, especially as adults, and grow close, a file entitled “Your Childhood” begins, then fattens. “My mother used to have a sewing machine just like this,” one remarks while at a yard sale. “I used to love to press the pedal. It used to enrage her; after awhile I used to do it to enrage her.” Conversations break out, lengthy revelations. With time, a partner’s upbringing, its dynamics and scenery, its shamed affluence or proud poverty, begin to exist for you. As memory is an imaginative faculty, it becomes nearly as real as your own.
Therein lies the intelligence; the personification is less a game of dress-up, more a statement on complexity. As a psychic phenomenon, personification is something that occurs without choice. Our most involved, complex relationships are with our fellow human beings; this is why when we deal with a copy machine that never behaves, a TV that must be slapped, a car that breaks down at the most inconvenient times, or a God who seems to have turned his back on it all; these relationships take on human terms. (Personally, I own two bicycles: one is 100% bike, the other–which is cranky and requires constant maintenance–is by now about 75% a person.) The speaker has a complex relationship with this man’s childhood; it becomes a person unto itself.
Of course, the poet can understand (and genuinely pity) the hatefulness and cruelty that this childhood displays. We learn these qualities have been hammered into it by a hateful mother. (And we might assume this mother got hers somewhere as well.) This logic of the crushed unable to avoid crushing, the oppressed unable to avoid oppressing, and the hated unable to stop hating is redolent of Dostoevsky, or Tolstoy’s narrator in the “Kneutzer Sonata. It contains an inherent question: can such behavior be stopped?
In closing–or near closing–I’d like to briefly mention the book’s cover and the way it participates in the experience of reading. When I read a 19th century novel like Madam Bovary or Jane Eyre,I am always intrigued at how the face of the woman in the period painting on the cover becomes the face of the title character in my imagination. She will, in fact, be the only character whose facial features I can clearly picture. Turning the book around, I’ll find the painting often has a title like “Woman Standing Under a Tree” and am pleasurably dumbstruck by the arbitrariness of it all. The experience is perhaps more pronounced when you read a play that you have never seen performed. If an actor’s name from the original cast is familiar to you, it is impossible to keep this actor out of your reading. This happened to me recently when I read Neil Labute’sFat Pig and learned that Jeremy Piven starred. Hopefully I’m not on my own island here.
The image on the cover of Fragment of the Head of a Queen, which contemporary art fans may recognize, is a reproduction of Arturo Herrera’s Study for When Alone Again. Originally the piece was a wall painting that, despite standing nearly twenty feet tall, was made to last for the duration of a single show. That was part of its thrust. A marriage of two seemingly incongruous qualities–enormity and impermanence–the painting can be read formally as a metaphor for an extreme psychological state. Which is what it literalizes. As such, it’s a magical companion for the poems. The head of a woman from a fairy tale (read: a woman’s fairy tale) has exploded. Red is everywhere; birds and dwarves and God-knows what else are pouring out of it. Into the mess the woman holds her uplifted hands, either to try to catch and control the contents of the eruption, or to hold it up for view. Or rather, for both reasons: it’s a productive ambiguity.
Of course the parallels to Fragment are obvious: the poems are explosive and visceral; the book is pervaded by that magical darkness one finds in folk and fairy tales; Marvin’s speaker, save for one poem, is decidedly female; the final poem is actually entitled “You Cut Open.” What’s amazing, however, is that though the figure in the painting is far from realistic, she actually becomes the speaker of this book. She flashes across the mind. This is especially the case whenever the word “head” is mentioned. And there are isolated heads everywhere in the volume, upwards of twenty of them, like the yard decorations in a cannibal colony:
Here’s my head, in a dank corner of the yard.
I lied it off and so it rolled.
- “Lying My Head Off”
Knock down the tree your head is in. The ball of it
kicked too high, it rattles precarious, looks lodged
Behold your head, a hive the bear’s pawed down
from its bough, smashed to ground for sweetness,
honey leaking yellow jasper. It’s furious center
dispelled, now all of you is leaving.
- “Fragment of the Head of a Queen”
I have de-contextualized these quotes, but in these and other examples, as in much great poetry, the reader discovers his faculty of Intelligence and his faculty of Imagination set at odds, at a tug-of-war. The faculty of Intelligence, recognizing repetition and seeking meaning, attempts to “read” these heads alternately as a figure for the mind (“she’s got a good head on her shoulders”), a figure for the climax of turmoil (“it came to a head”), or a figure for the loss or maintenance of composure (“I lost my head” or “I kept my head about me while others were losing theirs and blaming it on me”). The writing’s concreteness, however, activates the Imagination. The heads remain heads, and the reading experience is visionary. As neither the Intelligence nor Imagination is allowed to win out or be shut down, this is mastery of the medium. Keeping in mind the title, the prevailing themes, the interplay between form and content, even the choice of cover art, you cannot help but be struck by what complete and exacting work the poet has made. Fragment of the Head of a Queen is an accomplishment. It is art.
*Addendum: As several readers of this review might recognize my name, I’ll just say for the record that I know Cate Marvin personally. This book is great whether I know her or not.