The North and South of It

Clarinda Harriss

Moira Egan, CleaveWashington Writers’ Publishing House, Washington, D.C., U.S.A., 2004, $12.00; and Carole Langille, Late in a Slow TimeThe Mansfield Press, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 2003.

The North and South of It
by Moira Egan

Moira Egan and Carole Langille are two of the finest mid-career poets to publish during the infancy of the second millennium. Egan’s Cleave and Langille’s Late in a Slow Time are a poignant pleasure to read individually; re-read together, they are an art education.

Both collections (Egan’s first, Langille’s third) share a thematic preoccupation with emptinesses and all they contain, immanence in absence, the there-ness of what’s not there, what it takes to fill the void. The two books give us the north and south of the matter, to some extent reflecting the two poets’ very different locales, Langille’s imagery rooted in Nova Scotia with a few returns to the New York of her childhood, and Egan’s in the Mediterranean, New Orleans, sultry Baltimore. Both poets write a number of poems about the looming presence of dead parents as well as others who have, for one reason or another (lapsed love, restlessness, insufficient or excess soul-mating), left them. There the more obvious similarities end. Egan’s poems, as cunningly formed as one-of-a-kind jewelry crafted by an artist, not an artisan, are lush even when they lament; Langille’s free verse is a wind full of ghosts, sometimes warm, sometimes bleak.

Egan’s Cleave divides into and plays upon five major meanings of the word, which many centuries of linguistic missteps have rendered contradictory: i, “to make one’s way by cutting”; ii, “to have tended to run together”; iii, “to intersect. . .or fissure”; iv. “to part or divide with a cutting blow, to hew asunder”; v, “to cling or hold fast. . .to remain attached, devoted or faithful to.” Section iv displays Egan’s theme of loss at its most achingly immanent: the loss of her father, the poet Michael Egan, a brilliant and underacknowledged formalist in the Wilbur/Hecht mode, whom she lost twice — first when he left the family and again when he died of cancer in his early fifties. It is here, appropriately, that Egan’s extraordinary dexterity with rhyme in all its forms is most striking and deployed with deepest seriousness. (Egan is one of the very poets I can think of whose rhyme never, never triviates, never verges on the comic unless humor is intended.) Below are the last four strophes of “The Silk of the Tie.” Here the mortician is about to close Michael Egan’s coffin. His body is:

        very cool, just as I’ve been told.
        I touch his cheekbone,
        his forehead, cool and smooth
        and still as polished stones.

        Much as I want to gather
        the bony body in my arms,
        hold him once, for all the times
        he held me–a lover’s lie, a dying friend,
        the nights too drunk and dark
        for any arms but his to understand–

        I resist,
        simply bend to kiss him,
        one perfect lipstick outline near his lips.
        I ask the men to bury him with this.

        And for hours I feel too warm,
        my lips and fingers tingle,
        pricked with tiny thistles, or thorns.

Note not only the intermittent rhyme, intensifying as the poem closes, and the interplay of the consonants (perhaps at its most tactful and reticient in the 6-line strophe), but also the way the vowels work. Note especially the moan of the long o’s in 7 and 10, the kiss of the short I’s in 9, with kiss and moan coming together in the final tercet.

The same vowel interplay occurs in “Daddy’s Thesaurus,” where long i’s and o’s keen softly: of two other thesauruses, hers and Plath’s, Egan writes:

        Mine opens to smoke
        and still I fell the flutter of his ghost.
        . . . . 
        Up in smoke. Yes, that’s right,
        that’s how he died.
        . . . .
        I still can’t find 
        the words. It’s nine 
        years, sometimes I just can’t try.
        . . . . 
        And the final thing I can’t learn to forgive
        is that his voice went silent,
        and mine learned how to live.

“Living without” is, paradoxically, the luscious center of Cleave. Here, from the final section of the book, is the opening section of “Questions Midway,” a poem that gives absence assertive colors and textures — not the luxurious stuff of Egan’s silk-and-chocolate sex poems, a sub-genre of which she is a dazzling master (one itches to write “mistress”) but rather the materials of everybody’s everyday existence:

        A man asks terrible questions
        of me: why I, who might have done
        anything, wear this life I’ve kept on 

        like a shiny rayon second-hand dress, 
        worn not for beauty, but effect, whose roses 
        bloom a Pepto-Bismol effervesce. 
        . . . . 
        Driving home a little lit last night 
        (God protects drunks and Irish girls, right?) 
        this thought sideswiped me at a stoplight:

        I don’t believe that love can last forever. 
        If I had to choose between safety and danger,
        Gentle Reader, can you guess the answer? 
        . . . .

This poem comes near the end of the 68-page collection. Having seen Egan’s poems move through the voices and lives of classical mythologies’ most at-risk heroines, the reader can answer easily, most of all because of Egan’s brave choice of form in a time when the designation “new formalist” threatens to pigeonhole her work. But no formulated phrase can pin Egan’s poem to the wall.

The major intersections of Carole Langille’s Late in a Slow Time (hereafter LST) are its use of myth, its exceptional craftsmanship, and, as mentioned earlier, its central theme of loss or absence. The poem “Growing Pains” embodies at least two of the three (all three if reading a hint of the Baucis and Philemon story of the supernaturally refilled bowl is admissible). Bending over a well, seeing her own face staring up, she is “here and not here” — four words that could be the book’s emblem. The poem ends thus:

        Can pain be bred out of the body? 
        You might as well say, as if your language were French,
        your pain is bread rising in the marrow of you 
        and God, who is hungry, eats what you suffer.

        Slowly, like a bucket lowered into water,
        I learned feel all alone had a taste
        and the taste was cold. But hunger bound me to itself,
        forced me to separate reflection from reflection,

        go inside, fill the empty bowls.

The lacks have their own plenty. “Feeling all alone” has a taste, hunger offers a way to fill a void. A poem about deep pain, it is nevertheless rich in word play (e.g., using “suffer” to suggest both “to ache” and “to permit.” Absence reverberates in Langille’s poems syntactically, too, through her omissions: above, “reassure” without its customary direct object; in other poems “the air taut with cry” (not “cries” or “a cry”); “we’re visitors at the edge of place” (not “a place” or “someplace”). “What seems peripheral,” writes Langille, quoting from Rimbaud, “turns out to be the heart of the matter.”

Like Egan’s, Langille’s love poems — even those whose subject is satisfied love — hold loss at their periphery, as in “When You’re There and Not There”:

        . . .I rely on the warmth of your voice
        to illuminate the dark. Like a forest
        that parts and cinches a road.

        A clasp undone. . . .

Note the “parts” and “undone,” as well as, of course, the poem’s title.

“Happiness Times Five,” rooted in the soon-to-be-lost, celebrates self-sufficiency by giving us a how-to: “. . .eat life’s brevity / the way the north wind eats winter / and grows strong.” “Psychic Powers” ends, “There’s the no-trespassing sign. / Trespass. Describe what you see.” If there are limitations, limits can be turned into portals, Langille tells us.

A poem called “Late” opens the hundred-page collection with a statement of absence, “So many people I’ll never be,” that holds its own denial: in susbsequent poems, the writer inhabits or gets on intimate terms with Joan of Arc, Helen, Cassandra, Rimbaud, Kovaly, Munch, etc. These poems form a major link with Egan’s work, since much of the latter centers on mythic characters including Ariadne, the Minotaur, Procne, Penelope, and a deliciously raffish Leda (in “Leda Gets Laid,” where dark humor comes in rhyming quatrains), moving A.D. with Prospero, Miranda, James Merrill and a voodoo priest.

Like Egan, Langille seems to speaks most directly in her poems about the loss of parents, in Langille’s case a Jewish father who suffered many losses of his own, a gently-bred mother who apparently lost her way both mentally and emotionally. At 90, the father, “snarled” at by his wife, mourns, “Now, I’ll never amount to anything”; the mother, later, asks “Who is that man?” and is told “he’s dead”: “‘Oh, he’s dead,’ my mother says, disappointed. Then she perks up. / ‘We had some fun times together,’ she nods, musing to herself.” A major thematic difference between Langille’s and Egan’s poems about parents is that Langille asks the revenants (who rattle the doors at night), “What can I give you?” (“Not in the Warm Earth,” last half of last line). Egan, in both her style and substance, embraces the lost father-poet and revels in what he has given to her. In these two recent collections, both Egan and Langille show how wisely they have used their parents’ estates.

Clarinda Harriss‘s most recent collection, Air Travel, will be published in 2005 by Half Moon Editions. She edits and directs BrickHouse Books, Inc., Maryland’s oldest continuously publishing literary press.

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