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Iâve always been reluctant to make distinctions between âhighâ and âlowâ art. Maureen N. McLane, with the publication of This Blue (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), has invited me to reconsider the value of these termsâor rather, to reconsider the hierarchy they seem to suggest. She has made me entertain the notion that the designations âhighâ and âlowâ might be more useful as descriptions of particular styles than bald evaluations of a given artistâs taste or intelligence. Certainly, she has made me appreciate the artful ways that âhighâ and âlowâ diction co-exist in her own workâand more than co-exist: the ways her idiosyncratic approach to poeming thrives through deft and playful juxtaposition. In This Blue, we encounter the high-brow and the low-ball, often within the same poem.
McLaneâs is a sly poetry, to be sureâpart silk dress, part canvas sneaker, and in some sense, all reversible raincoat. Consider a poem like âLate Hour.â Consider the opening question: âisnât it time/ to say the garden/ is wasted/ on us?â With these spare words and their measured syntax, McLane evokes The Four Quartets of T.S. Eliot: Other echoes/ inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?Â She follows with an image that feels classic, timelessââuntended/ roses.â We are in the presence of high art, the reader might surmise. Then, without so much as a line-break or a punctuation mark, McLane shifts registers entirely. What appears beside these âuntended rosesâ but âJapanese/ beetles gone/ apeshitâ? This is hardly Eliotâs Quick, said the bird, find them, find them.Â
What a thrill for the reader! What a jolt! My senses are keened by the unexpected pairingânot of ârosesâ and âbeetles,â but of the contrasting ways they are described.Â Sheâs funny, I think.Â But also serious: âthe labor/ theory of value/ will not redeem/ the labor required/ to reclaim/ this.â She takes me out of the poem briefly with her crass choice of wordâapeshit (!)âonly to plunge me in again more deeply, more philosophically. Then, the poem sharpens, winnowsâthe simplest language revealing the most profound insight: âI donât know/ what to say/ and go on/ saying it.â Donât we all do that, poets and non-poets alike?
I find myself wanting to see the world the way McLane does, to gaze out through her speakerâs curiousâin every sense of the wordâeyes. This is the way I feel about all artists I admire. I want to see what Magritte saw, so I look to his version of a cloud. Same here with McLane, who also invites me to look skyward: âLetâs blast off/ and outsoar the noctilucent clouds/ I espy with my little stratospheric eye.â Then, consider her poem âSummer Beer with Endangered Glacier.â Even the title presents an unexpected juxtaposition of âlowâ and âhigh,â common and exceptional.Â Who pairs âbeerâ with âglacierâ? Maureen McLane, thatâs who. The poem begins, âMy one eye/ does not match/ the other// Corrective/ lenses regulate/ whatever// needs require.â This isnât an apology or an excuse.The speaker doesnât suggest her view is âlimitedâ so much as asymmetrical, unsynchronized. Perhaps this is a literal truth, optically speaking, but the reader canât help but focus on its metaphorical implications. McLaneâs eyes, like her poems, donât âmatchâ our expectations. They are never looking in the same direction at the same time. They will not view a single spectacle in a uniform or singular way.
What else does Maureen McLane see? Iâll show you:
The body a nest
and unplugged cords.
The dragonfly helicoptering
over the pond
the little zygotic blip
you once were
Â Â Â Â Â Â the satin crotch
of the metropolis
Why Dante in summer?
Why not?Â The doctrine
of purgatoryâs no more strange
than nanotubes or Tang.
(One eye sees ânanotubes,â the other sees âTang.â)
But for all the riveting visual stimuli presented in This Blue, I canât help but think that one of McLaneâs eyes is actually a tongue. She entreats her reader, âLetâs unpeel the world/ and bite that big fruit the earth.â I can almost taste it, canât you? This speaker is hungry for experience. She eats with her eyes, her mind, her heart. She devours what is edible so vividly that the reader savors and swallows vicariously:
It is almost done
this meal where I stick
a fork in tomatoed squid stew
called burrida its Arabic origins
brining my tongue.
I stick a fork in an animal
fork in a soul
and I eat and I eat
until kingdom come.
She devours what is inedible, tooâ
I eat this silence
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â I licked
you up & down
& up.Â I poached
eggs on your breasts.
McLane is a poet of enormous appetites. Her heart is healthy, her perceptions robust, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the long poem, âTerrain Life.â
Bear witness to the speakerâs hunger for knowledgeâher yearning to make sense of history and science:
I found the ground sound, unfaulted, uncracked, even where the
Â Â continents have split and will again split the archaic seamstress
Â Â unable to suture the plates of the earth forever
Earth now supports life but not now initiate it.
There are no crackheads in prehistory but surely
they were addicted to something those hominids
strutting their way out of the savannah
Tell me: when will âcrackheadsâ and âhominidsâ ever be paired so brilliantlyâand unexpectedlyâagain?
In the same poem, bear witness to the speakerâs hunger for loveâher yearning to make sense of attraction and desire:
Gravity thy name is woman
Â Â always secretly pulling me toward you
Â Â as if I had no resistance
Â Â as if the clothes I wore were merely draped
Â on a mannequin as if I were merely an earthbound species with
Â Â Â Â Â Â new skin
Â that fur an old animalâs fur
Â reclaimed by another
In the same poem, this speaker tells us: âThe era of common sense is over.â And so she has developed an uncommon sense, at once sensual and cerebral, as capacious as a cathedral and as precise as a point on a line.
Is there an ars poetica in This Blue, you may wonder, a poem that best captures McLaneâs aesthetic and ideological sensibilities? If I had to choose, Iâd say itâs âAviary,â the third poem in the book, which begins with a sonically gratifying direct addressââCurmudgeon/ pigeon [âŠ] what common/ gullet did you peck/ that crumb down now/ you jerking thing/ some call a flying/ rat?â One eye sees a flying rat, while the other recognizes: âto the dove,/ youâre kin.â Looking this way, with these asynchronous eyes, the pigeon is both/andâlow and high, plebeian and royal. And of course, the pigeon is also a metaphor.
When the speaker concludes,
do whatâs yours
to do with every
Sheâs talking to herself and to us, poets and non-poets alike. Then, this:
not more precious
than your idiot
insistence to stick
around and peck and look.
How else to make sense of the world than by âpeckingâ and âlookingâ? Itâs all the same for the regal nightingaleâthat elegant bird and emblem of high artâas for the ragtag pigeon, rooting through âthe trashheap/ called the future/ untransformed.â Itâs all the same for us, too, poets and non-poets alike.
By Maureen N. McLane
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Hardcover, 9780374275938, 128 pp.