Maureen N. McLane, Same Life, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $14 (paper)
Maureen N. McLane, World Enough, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26 (cloth)
At the dawn of the nineteenth century, Japan hit upon one of its now-signature art forms: ukiyo-e, woodblock “pictures of the floating world.” Reflecting Japan’s burgeoning cosmopolitanism, ukiyo-e recorded a moment when the countryside beyond Tokyo was freshly accessible along new internal trade routes. The prints were art for a travel age, a new consumer culture, and an era in flux. Leading printmakers such as Utagawa Hiroshige and Keisai Eisen crafted portraits of roads. They would travel some of Japan’s new highways and paint, of all things, its postal stations.
In contemporary America, such a venture might result in a bizarre collection of photographs taken from rest stops along I-90, or perhaps at airports. And if such a travelogue were to arrive as writing, it might read like Maureen N. McLane’s two full-length collections of poems, Same Life and World Enough.
McLane, however, does not merely inherit this immediacy, she reclaims and reuses it, returning to its roots. She makes plenty of allusions to Greeks and American Moderns, and portions of her work directly echo haiku even as they craft floating-world pictures for our current era of flux. Consider these two haiku stanzas from “songs of a season,” which seem as if they might indeed have been written at a rest stop:
for here or to go—
a glass mug, a paper cup—
life is fast, art slow
only a few years
before all I am blows
In each verse there is a rueful hallowing, which, in its deft speed, also makes art seem fast and life slow. These verses don’t reference plum season or the full moon or snow in the stirrups of horses, but even so, time passes, and too quickly. Compare the second verse above to this one by the classical haiku master Basho: “First day of spring— / I keep thinking about / the end of autumn.” Like Basho, McLane is writing her own memento mori for our junk and devastation.
Which is hardly the purview of the haiku masters alone: one thinks of Sappho, Ovid, Andrew Marvell. So, too, does McLane. Her lyrics refer to tradition in order to recast it. In this they are by turns reminiscent of William Carlos Williams (spare diction, direct address, the illusion of a haphazard note made in passing) and e.e. cummings (that whimsical lack of punctuation, which McLane manages to handle freshly). What emerges is a dance fit for these changing times: pleasing arrangements and unobtrusive syntactical installations that alight upon and honor moments as they pass.
“Syntactical installations”: the shapes of McClane’s sentences—real, complete sentences are rare here—often have a sculptural quality, shifting in both form and meaning as we peruse them, the verbal equivalent of the floating-world print. The site of a possible hinge vanishes or realigns as the sentence shape stretches in space. Take these lines from the early poem “Catechism,” an approximate ars poetica, a faint portrait of the artist we occasionally glimpse in these cascading verses:
I fell in love three times each time
was violent and small
things smashed and bloomed
The place I live is only sometimes
shareable thus weeping
That day I realized calm that
something tremendous had
happened to me but I had not
For a long time I used to go to bed early
Finally a beginning
There is one day it will all end for me
This is flux, first floating, then the explosion. How wonderfully the smashed syntax here also blooms, as if the smashing and blooming were reciprocal. Damaging the game of language in the business of revelation is to be expected, but McLane dramatizes both damage and revelation with great linguistic art. Her monologue, if punctuated, might shuttle between the public and the parenthetical, as in: “What world! (The place I live is only sometimes shareable),” followed by “thus weeping,” which perplexes even as it feigns logical deduction. Who is weeping? The place and the world, necessarily, but associatively, the self. The association, like the syntax, scrambles public and private registers. World and self: in what relationship should we place these? Great question, but if life is fast and art slow, perhaps we’ll never figure it out.
McLane’s poems express a wish not for wholeness, but for the sufficiency of what little we can hold on to.
Later, when neither self nor world is weeping, and the “I” who realizes is calm (though perhaps never slow), the speaker feels that “something tremendous had happened.” However, it’s a tremendous something whose heft is undercut by a well-placed grammatical wink. For what does the phrase “diagramming sentences” do but what every grammarian has ever warned us that modifiers ought not: it dangles between two sentences, trying to belong to each, surely a foolhardy act in this (not floating but) “only sometimes shareable world.” The result is a delightful tangle of meanings: “something tremendous had happened to me but I had not noticed diagramming sentences” and the more whimsical “diagramming sentences for a long time I used to go to bed early.” The fragments can be parsed both ways, yet the words “mean” neither. And, really, what is the “something tremendous”?
Despite, or perhaps because of, the casualness, the downright breeziness of some of these verses, the two books, in their rigor and continuity, suggest a sustained and serious project of research. A poem called “Songs of a Season II” in World Enough picks up from “songs of a season” in Same Life. Similarly, there are two poems in Same Life called “after guston,” and three in World Enough called “Passages.” The books can be read one after another as an unfolding tapestry, as stations on a meditation in progress, as successive sections of the same book. Indeed, they seem to read like a scroll.
Like the books’ architecture, McLane’s language delights in its own recombinance. In the opening poem of Same Life, McLane offers a lovely discussion of the grammatical qualities of DNA: “a tiny alphabet restricts itself // to the possible / mutations, // evolution / proceeding along lines // imperceptible / as the day // I was thrown / from the imaginary car.” Once again, her logic turns topsy-turvy mysterious. Once again, that mystery is packed with whimsy. In another poem, we find:
Mz N. is writing what she hopes will be
a masterpiece: Mispronunciation:
autobiography. She only includes
the bloopers she remembers.
She is very strict like that.
One can find this offhand playfulness throughout McLane’s work, which is often funny. But her poetic touchstones, including Sappho and Ovid, are also powerfully, if not predominantly, poets of loss whose verbal wit amplifies, rather than diminishes, moments of sorrow. Such is the case in “Song of the Last Meeting,” from World Enough, whose lightness of execution only heightens the emotional tension of its subject:
A few roses were blooming
on the almost bare trellis.
Your hair was now short.
I had never seen you that way.
All morning I’d wondered
whether to wear this
or that skirt.
It might have mattered.
It was strange to see you
in a new house
shining as you sat
in a necklace of raw flowers.
And when later in the cafÃ©
you were so quick to flare
at any casual thing I said
I saw how you must have flashed
for all your lovers.
The humor enlivens the work; the sadness humanizes it. And even here we are left with movement, or rather, what can be seen from a moving point, from a perspective that cannot help but keep moving on. A few fleeting flowers on the trellis of a house or café that will probably never be visited again (and certainly not this way, with this companion), and then we are gone.
I keep coming back to the idea of writing poems from rest stops, of writing poems that come out of a tradition that distills, even while hinting that the apparent stillness is fleeting. I’m drawn back to Hiroshige’s paintings of roads. In each, there is a reference to distances traversed: a mountain draws nearer, a path leads off through a picture’s corner. References to season and slant of light—fall or sunset, spring and dawn—remind us that, like the road, time is always pressing forward. McLane’s poems express a wish not for wholeness, but for the sufficiency of what little we can hold on to—the first poem in Same Life is entitled “were fragments enough”—even as the need to express such a wish casts doubt on its ever being fulfilled. But McLane’s fragments do affirm our humanity on the journey and give us something to draw us into ourselves, helping us to recognize a bit of the road we travel, even as we are passing by.