BooksWeekend

A Modern Poet’s Timeless Word Bank

Maureen McLane starts off her collection with a gaze that projects itself from the ground to the depths of the galaxy.

“I’m partly made by romantic poets and writers (as a person who’s long read in and taught and written about that period),” says poet and scholar Maureen McLane in reference to her latest book of poetry Some Say. “One can’t help but channel what has moved through you and touched you … I think of modernity as a long vexed period from about 1750 till now, so Shelley and Wordsworth et al. are, from that angle, contemporaries.” Such is the zeitgeist McLane’s work inhabits. Known primarily for her jarring use of language and syntax to hint at the lyrical tradition of poetry, McLane is a skilled wordsmith whose poems bask in a timeless word bank, jump from one landscape to another, and fold into their self-reflexive and cosmological selves.

Particularly in Some Say, McLane’s poems are imbued with the shifting of the seasons and the omnipresent sky, though she starts off her collection with a gaze that projects itself from the ground to the depths of the galaxy. In the book’s opening poem, “As I was saying, the sun,” McLane writes: “it’s there the sun / … / Watch it bear down on us / brute beautiful fact // and what stuns / is a sun stuck in the sky / by no one.” The sun, the celestial body oozing of passion and poesy, is stuck, arbitrarily, in the sky, with only the strength of our words keeping it as high as we see it. In this way, the words we employ to designate the elements that constitute our environment are the pillars we must depend on to formulate our ideas of reality. These high stakes are essential to McLane, whose poems feel urgent in their linguistic content. Naturally, poems depend on words to exist, but here, McLane’s words take on a new kind of urgency: “Everything in the world / has a name / if you know it.” If it’s not through denomination that the seasons and the natural environment came to be understood, then there must be many secrets lurking in the wild, or a word waiting to be discovered.

It’s McLane’s distinct ability to both paint complete pictures of scenes and extract individual elements within them that make her poems so thrilling. “I saw the world / dissolve in waves / the trees as one / with the sun / and their shows. // The trees on the shore / The trees in the pond / branch in the mind.” With the image of a nautical wasteland at the forefront of our minds, readers can’t help but feel the delicate reprieve of suddenly arriving at a lone branch, whole, with its linguistic membrane intact.

Maureen McLane (photo ©Joanna Eldredge Morrissey)

“I found myself responding to certain motifs, landscapes, cruxes — the sun as a kind of presiding force, yes, but with specific Adirondack towns, forests, mountains, lakes, New York city streets also showing up,” explains McLane. It’s true that the geo-specificity of the poems feels flattened out. Readers accompany the speaker as she walks through the woods, errs down untrodden forest paths, and considers both her emotional and physical landscapes: “bright morning sun through the slats / but the sun in my head is dead / … // after a storm / even you must concede / the birds again sing.” The poems never feel stuck to one place. One can’t help but recall William Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads, poems riddled with the imaginative soul of a man observing nature and its inhabitants. Like Wordsworth, McLane applies a tactful and powerful iteration of the local poem–that which irrevocably fuses the physical landscape with the inner workings of the poet’s mind, like a mirror in front of which the poet must place himself. “Every day the sky organizes itself / as if for watchers,” she writes. Here, McLane asks us to watch her as she unfurls onto the page, moving ever so quickly as the clouds in the sky, changing shape and composition in the blink of an eye, and always already omniscient throughout.

“We’re living in a long romanticism, maybe, coextensive with industrial capitalism and its financialized post-industrial mutations and spasms. Anything’s contemporary if it is alive in you and you can transmit that life to others,” states McLane. It’s this kind of poetic terminology, perception of the world, and temporal openness that helps readers fix themselves into the moment of reading, each one singular and specific.

Some Say stands out as a work of poetry that refuses to look at past poetic mechanisms as outdated, or needing replacement. For McLane, heartbreak never changes, the leaves on the trees fall to grow back, and everything is part of one dynamic linguistic chora that only our experience can enrich with matter and time. “Let me look at you, since I am here before you. / I am so rarely simply quiet before you.”

Maureen McLane’s Some Say (2017) is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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