The Return Message by Tessa Rumsey. W. W. Norton, $14.95.
Reviewed by L. S. Klatt
In The Return Message, Tessa Rumsey composes herself in the aftermath of “a love affair that ended badly.” Behind every lyric is a debris field of emotional wreckage--betrayal, miscarriage, broken engagement. Even the “cherry blossoms” are “caught. / Inside the static loop of loss.” If “all forms of landscape are autobiographical,” as Charles Wright once suggested, then what we have here in the “mountain streams of No-Where” is the poet at an impasse.
But bleak as that seems, The Return Message is not mired in the morbidly confessional; whatever her personal losses, Rumsey investigates the idea of love from a philosophical perspective. Rather than croon about heartache, she seeks ontological answers: if romance is only a biological impulse, then why, after intercourse, do I still long for my partner? “Does the soul--exist?”
The book identifies this craving for love with other human passions--namely, fame and transcendence. Are these evidences of personality or egomania? In one hilarious barb at the Rolling Stones, Rumsey writes, “memo to Mick: a spotlight shone on a body don’t infuse the body with soul.” But, on the other hand, his stage persona, to some extent, derives from audience acclaim. In The Return Message, identity is formed from without and within, at once concocted by others and self-expressed.
How different is Jagger from a Juliet lost in her Romeo’s adulation? “Consider The Individual, a tightly corseted continuum of light and ashes contained. /. . . in a burst of self. / Revelation: an exodus we call ‘falling in love’ or ‘abandoning one’s proper station.’” Untying the corset may not be “proper” but it is necessary; to be fully affirmed, the self must merge. Here and throughout, Rumsey posits a personhood that is blurred.
In Rumsey’s universe, all boundaries are artificial and therefore permeable. “If each world stops at walls of its interior-- / (Where one body begins, where the next body ends--) / Isn’t a wall a way of rubbing up against, of joining, of letting in?”
Even her grammar is not hard and fast. More often than not (note: “. . . in a burst of self. / Revelation”), the reader must ignore the period and roll through the stop in order to follow the thought: a hyper-enjambment.
Nor do the poems comprise a discrete series. Rather, they are paired, sharing a title and, wherever the book is opened, occupying left and right pages. But in these two versions of the same poem, the opposing lyrics are not mirror images but asymmetrical. The poem on the left side is consistently three lines long while the one on the right is more expansive. The first is elliptic, the second, digressive, and the two do not often coalesce.
Yet other poems among the hedgerows Rumsey has cultivated bear striking resemblances, and the reader encounters replications. For example, the “lipsynching” of “Headset” has already been anticipated in an earlier poem: “Because I could not be the songbird I found. / Another to croon my favorite tune.” Or in the opposite direction, “the cherry blossoms” of “April Fools” become “the Paradox of Cherry Blossoms, standing for winter and spring simultaneously” in “Fantasy Coat.” True to the design of a labyrinth--where one never knows which way is in and which is out--these passageways occupy the foreground and are complicated.
Rumsey’s “endless loop of landscape” sounds oddly similar to another line from Charles Wright--“all landscape is abstract and tends to repeat itself”--as if the organic material of Wright’s work has cross-pollinated. Certainly the two poets share an affinity for music, metaphysics, and Zen-like queries, but Rumsey more frequently strikes an exuberant, almost Thoreauvian note: “Don’t disappear! Shine brighter.” Such a plea resonates with “Copperopolis,” where she exclaims, “Every breathing body has a city buried. /. . . And lo! You are lit up from the inside!”
These moments resist the desperation we might expect from a poet obsessed with mortality. Though Rumsey stares down death and its concomitants, she remains inspired by the dazzle of the day-to-day, no matter how brief or troubled. The landscape, as it has for artists ad infinitum, keeps her musings grounded. This, after all, is a peregrinator who is wont “to ramble over. / Earth alone while still transmitting thoughts and feelings to whoever may be listening.”