By Maureen N. McLane
224 pages, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021.
The American poet Marueen N. McLane’s seventh title, More Anon: Selected Poems, does more than “announce” its author, it rechristens her. “More anon” reads as a punning sobriquet for “Maureen” and does justice to her style; the poems selected are gritty with allusion, intimate to the poet’s life and that life’s education among people, schools, and cities with their own grit and goings-on. Whatever apartments are furnished here become studios of the self-sufficient mind – “in our every cell / a tiny alphabet restricts itself” (“were fragments enough . . .” Same Life, 2008); it goes without saying that stanza means “room,” and it’s only natural that McLane should restrict herself to experience. Allusion is an expression of social intelligence, after all, and McLane’s poems are about as social and intelligent as they come.
The full explosive range of associations in these poems – social, intellectual, and fiercely literal – betrays a self-conscious “erotics of surprise” in early poems like “Core Samples” with its inventory of gardens (rivetted to significance by an timely, uncommon adjective: “bitter as bolted lettuce” – italics mine), poets (Yeats, Chaucer, Horace, and Spenser prove less uncommon), and gruesome sex. Rarely does a hammer drop so heavily as on the poem’s fourth page:
I was sick of your music
and sick of the sex
that was rarely more than anemic,
a studied thrust & suck.
Here, McLane’s vowels provoke seasickness, with cloying i’s and e’s glued to the back of the throat by hard consonants. It’s worth washing your hands after.
These selected poems allow themselves the altitude and rigor to fail, in the spirit of Warren Zevon’s “Sentimental Hygiene”: “everybody’s joining up to fight / for the right to be wrong.” And “failure,” here, isn’t pejorative. The best books are, to this reader’s ear, occluded by infelicities: the gruff, dominating frontage of consonants and sick, insignificant, miraculously imperfect comparisons (“awkardness,” as John Clare had it), not to replicate the world but to exist in it. One thinks of Lowell’s obstinate Imitations or Bill Knott’s self-spearing inelegances or even Stevie Smith, whose heterodoxies toward form provide an uncommon latitude for critical judgement:
They walked by the estuary,
Eve and the Virgin Mary,
And they talked until nightfall,
But the difference between them was radical.
(“A Dream of Comparison”)
A sticky, wicked rhyme prevails at the end, like so many of McLane’s.
These poets come to mind before, say, Marianne Moore, an great influence too often unduly levelled at verbally rigorous women poets; there’s Moore here, for sure, but these crimped, discursive poems aren’t natively Mooreish. For me it’s akin to saying that the pope is influenced by God; in the absence of one, the other will suffice. Avoiding Moore’s broad, Latinate, wry, plainsung cat’s’n’dogs English, a McLane poem hiccups and sputters like an overfed engine and can’t stop once it gets going, such that it makes real, irascible noise, as in “Haunt” from World Enough (2010):
there’s a dead woman in the river
dead baby in the cradle
there’s a dead soldier in the desert
& three crows wonder over and over
whether to cry out
or to sit on his breastbone and pike out
his bonnie blue een
First, there’s the admittedly Mooreish zigzag stanza. And of course Moore is an influence and inevitably stakes a chapter of McLane’s most visible release, My Poets: “One very often finds that in a Moore poem every phrase is load-bearing. This is sound architecture, the weight brilliantly distributed.” Indeed, but this particular stanza operates much differently. Its uneasy repetitions – “dead in the . . . dead in the . . . dead in the . . . over and over . . . “ – show this isn’t a built, load-bearing architecture. It’s strained and inexorable; think of the pain it takes to rhyme “river” with “over.” Unsound sounds prosper here: “pike out / his bonnie blue een.” “Pike out” carries an appropriate plosive puncture-sound and I admire the ease with which she lands a poem in Scots; “een” means both eyes and eveing, so “bonnie blue” proves both artful and necessary. The birds pike the evening from his eyes – how’s that for clarity?
Few poet fasten consonants so well. Moments like “pike-out” sometime mature into half-cocked in-line rhymes: “so deep under linked,” “spackled black,” “everyready batteries.” This wonderfully nervous, hasty language promises, and keep the promise of, exhaustion. McLane’s intellectual risks, too, are irresponsibly, unflinchingly total. Here’s a bit from “Mz N Therapy,” part of 2016’s Mz N persona sequence:
It was arduous
an ordeal a test a trial
agon acid bath
& co-feeling barely held
together in the cup of the room
Strange soul techn
peculiar praxis the Vale
of Soul-Making had come
to this O Thel
running from the Vale of Har
stay put stay where you are –
There’s a queasy effervescence in those recurring sibilants and fricatives, then the soft bombshell of those final rhymes. As throughout these poems, form unsettles and proves little consolation to the content, which dares here to conflate the night-school perils of regular psychotherapy with Blake’s valley of unlikeness. And if a poem will speak so directly to and of “praxis,” it had better make a compelling stand. Taken on its own, “peculiar praxis” glosses with routine – if good-humored – wit. Yet, when so flinty a word as “praxis” shuttles onto a lone article “the,” decisive interruptions prevail. So language and literature conspire against method and rightly so.
Time moves along with a poem’s lines– they’re how we get images and information across. McLane’s deliver time in jagged increments:
the willow’s lost its hair
the snow’s receded almost everywhere
and you are riding in the quiet car
the branches mostly bare
(“Quiet Car,” This Blue 2014)
Starting with the willow and closing on its branches – the car and the rider positioned amid – these sensations taper in proximity to one another: “the willow’s lost its hair” says more or less what “the branches mostly bare” does. The repetition means that time corrodes into sensation just as sensation replicates time; especially funny how the snow “recedes” like a hairline. Otherwise quiet moments assert themselves with their terminal a-r sounds: hair where car bare are are are. They reproduce a staring contest, eyes twitching and smarting in the air. McLane is winning, by the way.
Selected poems suffer from a certain kind of turbulence, from unexpected jerks in context and content. While posthumous selections argue toward (or against) reputation, poems selected during their author’s career take economy firmly to mind; there’s always a fragrant marketability at play, a greatest-hitness. Thankfully, McLane makes a virtue of continuity against mere workmanship; 2008’s Same Life reads suspiciously like 2018’s Some Say. McLane has already gathered her sticks, now she sharpens them. This proves a conclusive asset; there is nothing like her in American poetry.
Spencer Hupp is a poet and critic from Little Rock, Arkansas. His poems, essays, and reviews appear with the Sewanee Review, Raritan, Michigan Quarterly Review, the New Criterion, and the Times Literary Supplement, among others. Hupp was most recently named a semifinalist in the 92Y Discovery Contest. He currently serves as an MFA candidate and graduate instructor in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University.