Anne Marie Macari's She Heads into the Wilderness does show the reader at least two ways out of town. The book's two sequences (and an epilogue) take us in the direction of eco-poetry ("Earth Elegy") and of Edenic and post-Edenic myth ("Their Eyes Were Opened"). Her form of choice, unrhymed and heavily enjambed couplets, reminds the reader of the missing tertium quid, history, because the formal backstory of that form, in turn, points to a time when the couplet was poetry's version of Q.E.D. and the poet and reader complicit in unpacking its connections and implications. History, which is at the other end of the title's wilderness, can make of any trek a pilgrimage. Meanwhile, Macari's frequent use to the unrhymed couplet underscores its other capacities: its ventilating pauses, its sinuous coursing, while holding in reserve its potential for pulling up and making a statement stand pat, even occasionally sounding the decisive click of the lock.
The poems of the section called "Earth Elegy" work by denying the human its usual self-empowerment and/or enlightenment at the expense of nature and of denying, further, the exceptionalism with which poetry grew famous, attaching to the spread of subjectivity. In truing the perspective, her poems find what is moving in the world beyond the subject and its reality distortion field:
I watched from my kitchen
as it gathered in leaves and needles
bleached, dissolving, though I hardly noticed
how the slow orgy
of weather took it season after season
into the pelvic
trench of dirt
That trench is guilty not only of a Stevensian concupiscence, but of a barometric "orgy," for its wheeling and grinding puts us in the way of the tidal forces, where deep time and high time embrace:
of beings, billions,
dying as we were dying and other beings driving
through the debris
and living off it—the dining and dead together,
unseen sinning and tilted
like us on our axis, pitched toward some
of crashing trees . . .
Pelvic energies, as we see, bind nicely with the dying, as moribunds make way for the hungry generations. In poetry, nothing is more trite, and at the same time, nothing more profound. It's the process, the breathtaking systemic blindness and milling violence that is all the show, not the fact that we perceive it, or mark it up to experience. Naturalism always features desire reliably separated from love and yet never failing to turn up its inexorable tractor beam. The pulverizing Macari describes moves thematically in the opposite direction too, that of Eliot's love that is not the product of desirewhich is hardly a "love" at all, except in the strict sense of compliant self-emptying:
there was a reason, more than hunger,
that drove me here. Then leave of me
what's left, scattered on the roadside,
for there are so many travelers
and they are forever hungry.
("American Tree Sparrow, Platte, Nebraska")
While the milling of death in every register not only shows the necessity of self-emptying, it also lets the poet make a plug for Whitmanian anonymity, as does the off-hand "once I read that..." attribution. Clearing the decks, as it were, makes way for a return of the gods, in the sense made familiar by Heine and Heidegger. Not only that, but naturalism can be its own religion, as Darwin knew. Macari is closer to the naturalistic point of view in her particulars, but closer to these antecedent poets in her interest in the strategies and tactics of continuance:
I leave everything I have to you—dirt
and dust. Make what you can of me. I was
born here, return me to grass lullabies,
the black tea of creation. O broken-rib earth,
red orb in the tree, I touch you, my fruit,
my flesh. I eat you, my forbidden.
["X (It's Just the Starting Place"]
In the longer second part of the collection, she moves into myth mode, knowing that doing so allows her to derive a narrative as readily from nature as it does from history. This fact suggests an answer to why so many American poets seem to find the naturalistic option tempting. Whitman showed how porous the borders were by redescribing history as nature with such aplomb that it grew obvious to succeeding generations of poets what he had done. Similarly, pushing the subjects of poems into the realm of myth released them from the old obligation to pay heed to traditional religion, while at the same time saving for themselves something like the timeless. In other words, myth folded time in on itself and so departed from the laws of sequential development, to which history was tied. Myth meanwhile benefitted from the prestige of timelessness that formerly belonged to the eternal. In incorporating time, the mythical poem supersedes the cascades of historical event, even as it incorporates those events. It likewise folds in nature's sequences of birth-death-reproduction. Yet what the reviewer detects only magnifies subtleties, leaving the poet to recede behind a feline smile. Macari has the grace to avoid the behind-the scene positioning of big templates, and yet her work provides the stuff that converts variables into verities:
And she who writes
about the lost sea cow,
tell her the air she moves in
is singed with extinction.
We are waiting. Remember how
we turned the other cheek?
("Steller's Sea Cow")
That sign of humanity, that cheek-turning (from the "Earth Elegy" section) merely raises the wilderness' eyebrow, as does a Biblical reworking worthy of Kierkegaard:
Whoever, like Abraham,
rubs your neck and leads you to the altar,
whoever asks you to choose and bow down,
will be against you."
["XV (The Cord Between Us)"]
Can one ever say enough about estrangement? "It's good to be unknown, a stranger,/ good to know nothing and no one and say now, now..., says the speaker in "XXV (Empty It, All of It)." It is the work of a lifetime, of balancing faith with doubt: faith that future generations will make good on promises uttered fortuitously; doubt that promises framed the right-healing spaces:
Not your country
I tell myself as if
I could know any place as if I were
in a place but am not
really that is the happiness
The grasses sing
An Eve-like figure presides and moves through the poems of the book's second part, "Their Eyes Were Opened" ("We always ate from that tree. The women/ with child craved its fruit, sweetest, most red."). As the title suggests, her talent is for perspicuity, and the first question her appearance raises is how to match the seen with the said. This figure is first presented in the third person, but as the sequence progresses, she becomes the speaker. Mother Eve is also an aspect, an emanation, of the poet 's will to impose a particular story on her experience, which is to say her history. At once other-worldly, timeless, and eerily familiar, the voice loses its authority by succumbing to the itch of moral indignation only once, in a Katrina poem:
See Noah wave from his plane, smiling like
God's own secret above the broken levees,
below him the whole world a sick brown sea,
survivors begging from roofs, bodies
floating, cars in the trees . . .
["XXI (A Scratchy Radio Voice Whispers)"]
Reapproaching history need not only leave one in a state of political high dudgeon. One of the most approachable poems in the volume is Macari's affecting elegy for the mezzo Larraine Hunt Lieberson, who died of breast cancer in 2006:
On stage in hospital gown and socks, IV
Hanging from her arm, she is what she'll become,
A woman not wanting to die, and all
That applause, audiences crying—stay with us,
Don't leave—flowers flung at her.
["XXX (Octave to Octave She Passes)"]
Lieberson is of interest to poets because, shortly before her death, her last concert appearances involved songs based on poems of Neruda (set to music by her composer husband). Not only does Macari's spirited pilgrim eulogize this singer who fell, even as she seemed to be ever-ascendant, and not only does she summon the shade of Neruda, her phrasing also manages to suggest that his erstwhile comrade, Chilean poet César Vallejo, come along. In Poemas Humanos, Vallejo writes of a corpse that, after repeated attempts from an ever-swelling circle of friends to affect a resurrection, finally relents and allows itself, in the crescendo of wailing humanity itself, to be reanimated. The repeated phrase, "Don't leave!" emanating from the crying audience, sets the lament backwards to touch Neruda and Vallejoor pulls them forward to join Lieberson's audience. Here one must succumb to the temptation to quote Carolyn Kizer who, in "Singing Aloud," rushes out "to impose a form on what I don't understand/ or that which I have to transform because it's too grim as it is." That story, now myth, brings with it the solace of what a book like Macari's offers: formal coherence, proportion, linguistic precision, dynamic control, and rhythmic delight:
She heads into the wilderness, weeping
and stunned by shame, her eyes open. Into
another country, bent and becoming,
fibrous and heavy in her body, feeling
that she is the tree, or that she is the fruit
that ripens and falls, that falls and will keep
falling her whole life.
["XXXVI (She Heads into the Wilderness)"]
The problem that Macari sets herself is how to mediate the mythical persona with the familiar voice. Self-authorization can be a continually foreshortened labor, but it is labor nonetheless. It is also a task worth engaging, and with her new collection she seems, as Louise Gluck once slyly remarked about her bardic self, poised to write "the great poems of her middle period." I hope she does: her intelligence never confuses Eve with Tallulah Bankhead, never the tragic with world-weariness.