Poems: New and Selected by Marianne Boruch. Oberlin College Press, $19.95.
Reviewed by Jenn Blair
Marianne Boruch’s Poems: New and Selected opens with “The History of The,” a twelve-part poem that spans nine pages. One part opens “something flashes      in this hollow between buildings.” The poem presents many such small smudges of permanence--kernels the heart swims back upstream to meet and memories the mind continually coalesces around despite the forward pull of chronology and the endless driftings of clouds: “The room is cool / as the past is cool in its / immaculate way. Dark hallways. Even in summer, / the rooms there . . . Meanwhile, my grandfather / read by the window. And I gathered myself / though there was no self yet / to gather. How to say this? I watched / light fall on him and all his years: / beautiful, courtly.” How and when are we born? Boruch’s poetry suggests a few answers: Here and there. Long ago. Eventually.
After “The History of The,” Section One officially begins, presenting readers 25 new poems that poems brim with autumn leaves, tulip trees, stick-on glow in the dark stars, cats, and ROTC boys--familiar landscapes, but ones presented with an uncommon depth of observation. One new poem, “Double Double,” seems an unassuming ars poetica. The poet describes the space where she goes to write (her son’s old room), then shares, “I wait all this. And wait, / to clicks of sparrow, the tuneless / finch--my window’s up. Write write! because-- / I don’t know. Birds close down / for a fine few seconds.” A lovely last line, but slight recompense--and as for the self-induced command? Flown off into exasperation. This rupture, however, arguably creates the same effect as George Herbert’s vocational agonies do in “The Collar,” or Milton’s Sonnet Twenty-Six (on blindness). Poems such as these do not falter so much as break into candor, and once they mend themselves, the recovered calm carries an even greater authority. The speaker has considered the price, but still presses ahead. In “Double Double,” the poet grows placid again, and more, concluding, “Take a room. Then quiet the world in there. First, it’s small.”
Other new poems in the collection contain subtle, but powerful, voices. In “The Way the Dying Hear Things,” the speaker witnesses a “nurse busy / with another patient, now lift / your other leg, voice too high, / vapid sweet.” Here, a moment most turn away from must now be looked at, and considered. “Elegy” makes effective use of repetition, creating an almost incantory cadence: “Before the basil blackened. Before plates / slept in their cupboard. Before the streets / were snow. Before the song started in the throat / or crept sideways into the hands that hold the cello / or the moon spilled to nonsense all / over the floor.” The poem is so simple, so seamless and perfect, readers easily glide right past the line “Before our son grew so eye to eye” before stopping, turning around, and asking, “Before our son grew so eye to eye? Could there be a more bittersweet way marking time?” One line carries all the world’s dynamite, then explodes it, but subterraneously, leaving everything intact and ringing.
If Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience were mixed in a blender, Boruch’s “Song in Spring” would come pouring out. The poem glides and gilds, but refuses to present youth as a golden age free of care. There is already a shadow over the sun--a sadness in the swagger: “The fuck you is the easy part, yolk of an egg / that loves the sizzling grease, mouse / the trap dreams of, the way cars / veer off at dark, / all headlights until / the curve in the road swallows them. Such / relish. But the what now, and the should I / that’s the loneliness straight. And how many / days and nights, years of that before the body / tells none of its secrets gracefully / but gets used to things broken . . .” After acknowledging the stress of childhood and considering the physical body’s slow demise, the poem ends with a wry, fond paean to one’s early years: “Oh, that / Fuck you in the bright afternoon. Child / with the foul mouth, darkly radiant on the steps. / New leaves maneuver each bud, the blinding / bicycles speed by.”
Poems are like lives, in that ending them well often poses the greatest of agonies. Boruch’s poems, however, seem exempt from this common difficulty. Consider her new poem, “I Imagine the Mortician,” in which the speaker meditates on a fictional undertaker who is unhappy with his vocation, but possibly takes some joy in carefully examining the hands of the dead: “It might be / a hobby of his that perks up the whole / awful business . . .” Although the main focus of the poem is an imagined undertaker, the end of the poem subtly refocuses attention back to the speaker; at this juncture, the geo-physical location of the poem seems to shift, but only in theory. At first, one might have difficulty believing that no particle or atom presented ever stood outside the brilliant lie of the imagination. Still, at the poem’s close, a door slowly opens--a door belonging to a house the poem never left: “. . . My mind-- / only birdsong entered, sound / like pebbles tied together with string / and trailing off. So I let / the mortician in / with his bent curiosity, the reverse / of the new mother who counts / all the toes and fingers / and is so relieved.”
“Pleasure” is much different than “I Imagine the Mortician,” but this poem also comes to a skillful close that mixes observer and subject, until all seems bound up and indistinguishable as Yeats’s Dancer and Dance. After speaking of two young people kissing at the Art Institute, the speaker places herself on a museum bench (then on a haystack in a Monet painting). At the end, her gaze returns to these two lovers, and the voice expands to include any fixture of the building (the speaker, the bench, or a piece of artwork--she might as well be any of them--but the interesting part is that perhaps she really is): “Of course, these two / are young, which is to say, I’m / not anyone, a piece of wood, / a wall. And they’re / invisible.”
After the first section of new poems, the book divides into four more sections, one section for each of Boruch’s previous four collections of poetry. Sections Two, Three, and Four present poems from The Gazebo (1985), Descendant (1989), and Moss Burning (1993), respectively. The more recent a work is, the greater share of representation it receives: Section Five is the largest, presenting 36 poems from Boruch’s most recent work, A Stick that Breaks and Breaks (1997).
The selected poems gives new readers another chance to encounter the birds who “dive/ into invisible walls, / their small heads dashed against pure thought” in “Diamond Breakfast,” and the horse “the color of thick velvet drapes, / years and years of them behind the opera, / backdrop to ruin and treachery, all / innocence and its slow / doomed unwinding of rapture” in the sadly elegant “My Son and I Go See Horses.”
Those already familiar with Boruch are bound to find selections from past works more than apt. They will nod again at the Biology teacher in “The Berlin Wall, 1996” who “cheered and harped / over any bright bit--a fingernail or a piece of scab / down to its cellular tweed.” The inclusion of “Reasons” will reintroduce them to the lover who eloquently confesses, “Third place: a continual slow surprise / at your beauty / which is a kind of country. / I take my citizenship seriously . . .” “Moss Burning,” the elegiac title-work of Boruch’s 1993 collection, is another older poem that can more than withstand resurrection; the poem is so well-wrought, so understated, yet fierce, that even past readers might be startled again.
Selections from A Stick that Breaks and Breaks are especially well-chosen. “Camouflage” touches on “mimicry” and “deception,” speaking of “Secrets in the bones which aren’t / whispers, in the fine / and serious brain / whose best parts / cannot think.” “The Vietnam Birthday Lottery, 1970” is another fine poem. In the poem, the speaker remembers a cluster of girls anxiously listening to the radio: “And each had a birthday / hidden in that quiet like a flame / you’d cup a hand around, / in wind.” Although the speaker was single at the time, she had a friend “whose boy was suddenly born all wrong.”
One of the greatest strengths of Boruch’s poems is their locale: they often situate themselves at the edge (or precipice) of the unexplainable. In a new poem, “Bones Not of This Puny World,” the speaker meditates on saints: “I think / about them, not constantly, just / occasionally, how seen from below, / they were wiry / bent shapes, which meant they were / praying, repeating some / fabulous, modest sentence--forgive me, / mother of all things that walk / or swim or fly, that think / or refuse to think--or they were / simply glazed over, going / lockjawed into that / holy blank.” The sense seems to be that one can begin to peer into such mysteries, but then he or she must quickly back away. In “Piano Tuning,” the speaker cannot watch the man tuning her piano (the act is too private and wonderful and terrible), but she listens (and is altered) all the same: “Because the whole time / it was the slow weight of the tuning hammer, / the metal strings that don’t know / what music is, sweet / dumb narrowest expanse / of the deepest ore, singing out / its genius anyway.”
In the end, there might not be much difference between the saints and the piano presented in the aforementioned poems. Both inhabit the space where sense breaks down and the only thing that matters is uttering the utterance, regardless of what ground the notes fall on. Boruch’s imaginative witness of these “throw away” notes or gestures is not primarily salvaging, or even art. First of all, it’s an act of courage. Before that, a great gift.