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One of the earliest poems that I fell in love with was Maureen Seaton’s poem “White Balloon” from her second collection of poetry Fear of Subways published in 1993. In this poem she is “in charge of one young soul/tied to my wrist/with a string that won’t break.” The poem concludes with these two stanzas:
Linda, it’s the letting go
that terrifies: the night air
alive with rising ghosts,
the cries of strong men
grieving in each other’s arms,
the ease with which we love.
It was the observation in the final line to which my mind returned and continues to return. More than fifteen years later, in her seventh collection, Cave of the Yellow Volkswagen, Seaton’s poetry and her poetic voice have matured, but reading her work, I still find the sense of joy and wonderment from that earlier poem.
Seaton’s work has evolved since her first two collections in a variety of directions, most notably an increasing intensity of language and a strong concern with the visual both in the imagery of the poetry and on the page. Seaton’s language of Cave of the Yellow Volkswagen is as fresh and quirky as it is dense and unusual. The language throughout the collection is exciting, compressed, unusual, and at time surrealistic. She juxtaposes words and phrases that surprise, upend, and delight. Seaton is not a word-worker, in the sense of someone who works with words as a crafter or part-time putter-er, rather she has an artisanal approach to language, savoring it, reinventing it, reimagining it.
The visual elements in Cave of the Yellow Volkswagen possess a renewed intensity. Sometimes Seaton employs the techniques of concrete poetry within her poems as in “Some Theories of the Formation of Caves” and “Impatiences.” At other times, she introduces graphical elements into her poems. These visual concerns bring a new urgency to her work which is counterpointed with the urgency of time and memory that Seaton explores through poems built around the trope, “When I was. . . .” “When I Was Avant-garde” and “When I Was a Jersey Girl” are among the strongest poems in the collection.
The poems of Cave of the Yellow Volkswagen travel, not only to new language and new images, but to different places. Seaton’s poems, “Illinois,” “Ohio,” and “Passing into Baltimore” demonstrate observations about places that are unusual, quirky, and even, yes, queer.
While Seaton is working within some newer poetics, the narrative impulse is still vibrant within these poems. The poem “Lorraine Hansberry’s Grave” is in the narrative tradition, written with long lines, almost as a prose poem. In the poem, Seaton recounts looking for Hansberry’s grave with her lover. The poem concludes,
They buried Hansberry on a hillside in Croton-
on-Hudson beside white people and a river plunging south. We
searched for her for an hour in the rain, my lover and I, wishing
for slickers and luck and long lives to come. It was I who found her
and shouted to my lover, who leapt to me from among the dead, her
body aslosh with joy.
Reading Maureen Seaton’s latest book leaves me wishing for “luck and long lives to come.” I think it may leave you, too, “aslosh with joy.”
Cave of the Yellow Volkswagen
Carnegie Mellon University Press / $15.95
Paperback, 80 pp.