In her debut collection, Laurie MacDiarmid, a Georgetown Review Press prize-winner for 2011, presents readers with narrative and lyrical poems that are compassionate and searing, poems that are filled with truth and tragedy, innocence and experience.
Many first books of poems present a coming-of-age arc, but what sets this collection apart is MacDiarmid’s lovely writing. Her narrator looks at the past with the precision of a journalist, the critical eye of the camera, and the lyricism of a poet. The details of past lives and events are presented in excruciating detail. Like the geologist in the preface poem, MacDiarmid’s narrator studies the past, “burrows in it.” She excavates it, looking for gems, a certain ore—
He studied the ground,
burrowed in it for red, gold and silver glints,
stuck his firm thumbs and the pick
deep into rotting earth,
those sweaty places where dirt yields
its delicate secrets.
I’m reminded, as I read these poems, of Sharon Olds’ poem, “I Go Back to May 1937” with word choices that conjure danger at every turn of phrase. Like Old’s, MacDiarmid’s words carry warnings, words like “dirt” and “sweaty” in the passage above—not dangerous in and of themselves, until joined with what comes before and after. Other words like “red, gold and silver glints” become fraught with danger, and ring with Olds,’ “I […] bang them together at the hips like chips of flint”
Under the scrutiny of MacDiarmid’s skilled eye, ear and then pen, even an amusement ride becomes a torture chamber: “I hold my breath, grip the bar / twist the skin of my hands / over it.” And the ride begins.
This poet uses a fiction writer’s—a screenwriter’s—sense of pacing in her poems. I’m reminded of the film Psycho where Martin Balsam’s character, Detective Arbogast, walks up a flight of stairs. Viewers know who and what is waiting for him at the top. They see a large knife glinting in the camera, but he does not. Each step is agonizing as it creates fear in the audience, one that Arbogast does not yet know.
MacDiarmid paces her narratives with the same careful pitch—the threats to the narrator, a child, an adolescent—when she deliberately describes terrors both real and imagined, prowling every corner, lurking with every turn of the page.
Lying in bed, I heard
their murmuring voices
in language liquid as spiced hot chocolate,
the scraping sounds of
sliding shadows, and
those blank moments after the credits
and before THE END,
a slither on the front step
a light knock at the door,
a slither on the front step,
a light knock at the door,
the measured breath and thumping heart
of someone waiting for me there,
someone hungry and faceless, someone
I will be compelled to embrace.
Adults might understand that fear skulking in the night might be imagination, but a child watching a movie or, later, hearing voices she does not understand, is afraid. MacDiarmid amplifies those fears with her attention to fine detail.
Danger and disappointment, bitterness and anger fill these coming-of-age pieces. The reader follows the narrator’s path from losing a father to gaining a surrogate, who tells her to “call him daddy” at her mother’s wedding but squeezes her hand telling her to, “Be still / you little shit.” This sentence sets up the scenes that follow—an angry, alcoholic step-father, a little girl who wonders, “Who’s that nibbling at my house?”
The narrator endures indifferent treatments from mumps to other childhood ailments to that first female examination. She endures more death, more funerals, a move to a foreign country, being kicked out of school, the confusion of religion, her aunt’s strange rapture at the ballet:
our eyes glowing red in
the thickening light,
row after row of
blank faces, open mouths, slack hands,
No wonder the narrator says, “I am turning 13 and the world breaks into pieces – dusty windows, open mouths.”
While this may be a book about a girl, becoming woman, it is also a book about memory. Returning to “The Geologist,” readers see the narrator searching for her father but can find “nothing to hold his ashes or the shape / of his missing face, / no book filled with his loopy handwriting or / these stories: invented memories of / a father I could not keep.”
The poet finishes with two long poems reflecting the myth of the “moon palace,” a tale in which a girl leaves the world and a goes to the moon palace to be with her father. Full of visions and “creaking sun[s],” the writer travels the paths of memory, be they real or imagined. “I don’t know why I’m telling you this,” she says. Readers know why; she must tell it.
Perhaps all memory is invented. Don’t we look at our histories through the lenses of only our eyes, keeping what fits and discarding what doesn’t or is too painful to hold? MacDiarmid’s narrator appears to be a girl who leaves the world in search of another. In an earlier poem, the narrator describes herself as:
a small astronaut
setting out from her ship
across an empty moon
She finds her way, finally, growing as we all do. Perhaps this book is an elegy for what she has lost.
Despite some line breaks which seem unearned, this is a fine debut collection of poems—no consolation prize—a slight book by many standards, but finely written with moments of narrative tragedy and myth, moments of lyrical clarity and magic. There isn’t a wasted word or image. These are poems both genuine and sensate. This is a book that feels like it needed to be written.
Karla Huston is the author of five chapbooks of poetry: A Halo of Watchful Eyes (Wolf Angel Press 1997), Pencil Test (Cassandra Press 2002), Flight Patterns (Main Street Rag Press 2003), and Virgins on the Rocks (Parallel Press 2004), and Catch and Release (Marsh River Editions). Winner of many writing awards, including the Main Street Rag Chapbook contest, she has published poetry, reviews and interviews in several journals including Cimarron Review, 5 A.M., Free Verse, Margie, North American Review, One Trick Pony, Pearl, and Rattle.