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I’ve always been reluctant to make distinctions between “high” and “low” art. Maureen N. McLane, with the publication of This Blue (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), has invited me to reconsider the value of these terms—or rather, to reconsider the hierarchy they seem to suggest. She has made me entertain the notion that the designations “high” and “low” might be more useful as descriptions of particular styles than bald evaluations of a given artist’s taste or intelligence. Certainly, she has made me appreciate the artful ways that “high” and “low” diction co-exist in her own work—and 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.
McLane’s is a sly poetry, to be sure—part silk dress, part canvas sneaker, and in some sense, all reversible raincoat. Consider a poem like “Late Hour.” Consider the opening question: “isn’t it time/ to say the garden/ is wasted/ on us?” 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? She follows with an image that feels classic, timeless—“untended/ roses.” 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 “untended roses” but “Japanese/ beetles gone/ apeshit”? This is hardly Eliot’s Quick, said the bird, find them, find them.
What a thrill for the reader! What a jolt! My senses are keened by the unexpected pairing—not of “roses” and “beetles,” but of the contrasting ways they are described. She’s funny, I think. But also serious: “the labor/ theory of value/ will not redeem/ the labor required/ to reclaim/ this.” She takes me out of the poem briefly with her crass choice of word—apeshit (!)—only to plunge me in again more deeply, more philosophically. Then, the poem sharpens, winnows—the simplest language revealing the most profound insight: “I don’t know/ what to say/ and go on/ saying it.” Don’t 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 speaker’s curious—in every sense of the word—eyes. 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: “Let’s blast off/ and outsoar the noctilucent clouds/ I espy with my little stratospheric eye.” Then, consider her poem “Summer Beer with Endangered Glacier.” Even the title presents an unexpected juxtaposition of “low” and “high,” common and exceptional. Who pairs “beer” with “glacier”? Maureen McLane, that’s who. The poem begins, “My one eye/ does not match/ the other// Corrective/ lenses regulate/ whatever// needs require.” This isn’t an apology or an excuse.The speaker doesn’t suggest her view is “limited” so much as asymmetrical, unsynchronized. Perhaps this is a literal truth, optically speaking, but the reader can’t help but focus on its metaphorical implications. McLane’s eyes, like her poems, don’t “match” 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? I’ll show you:
The body a nest
and unplugged cords.
The dragonfly helicoptering
over the pond
the little zygotic blip
you once were
the satin crotch
of the metropolis
Why Dante in summer?
Why not? The doctrine
of purgatory’s no more strange
than nanotubes or Tang.
(One eye sees “nanotubes,” the other sees “Tang.”)
But for all the riveting visual stimuli presented in This Blue, I can’t help but think that one of McLane’s eyes is actually a tongue. She entreats her reader, “Let’s unpeel the world/ and bite that big fruit the earth.” I can almost taste it, can’t 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, too—
I eat this silence
you up & down
& up. 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, “Terrain Life.”
Bear witness to the speaker’s hunger for knowledge—her yearning to make sense of history and science:
I found the ground sound, unfaulted, uncracked, even where the
continents have split and will again split the archaic seamstress
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 “crackheads” and “hominids” ever be paired so brilliantly—and unexpectedly—again?
In the same poem, bear witness to the speaker’s hunger for love—her yearning to make sense of attraction and desire:
Gravity thy name is woman
always secretly pulling me toward you
as if I had no resistance
as if the clothes I wore were merely draped
on a mannequin as if I were merely an earthbound species with
that fur an old animal’s fur
reclaimed by another
In the same poem, this speaker tells us: “The era of common sense is over.” 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 McLane’s aesthetic and ideological sensibilities? If I had to choose, I’d say it’s “Aviary,” the third poem in the book, which begins with a sonically gratifying direct address—“Curmudgeon/ pigeon […] what common/ gullet did you peck/ that crumb down now/ you jerking thing/ some call a flying/ rat?” One eye sees a flying rat, while the other recognizes: “to the dove,/ you’re kin.” Looking this way, with these asynchronous eyes, the pigeon is both/and—low and high, plebeian and royal. And of course, the pigeon is also a metaphor.
When the speaker concludes,
do what’s yours
to do with every
She’s 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 “pecking” and “looking”? It’s all the same for the regal nightingale—that elegant bird and emblem of high art—as for the ragtag pigeon, rooting through “the trashheap/ called the future/ untransformed.” It’s all the same for us, too, poets and non-poets alike.
By Maureen N. McLane
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Hardcover, 9780374275938, 128 pp.