The Longest Total Solar Eclipse of the Century by Catherine Meng. SplitLevel Texts, $12.
Reviewed by Sarah Nance
Titled after a major astronomical event, Catherine Meng’s The Longest Total Solar Eclipse of the Century examines the way we mark specific events and the passing of time alike. This collection, which spans the year between July 20, 2009 and July 20, 2010, uses the image of the eclipse as one of many organizing features, along with diary entries, seasons, days of the week, and games like musical chairs. Along with these various structuring devices, Meng also pushes our conception of poetic style, mixing prose poetry with more traditional lyric styles, flirting with forms like the sestina, and mixing long, sectioned poems with shorter, page-length poems.
Before her opening title poem “The Longest Total Solar Eclipse of the Century”—which explores an actual event which took place on June 22, 2009 and lasted six minutes and 39 seconds—comes a short prose poem prelude, which commands a “you” to quit drinking, to go to the dentist, to learn Spanish, to call your mother. Not all the advice is common sense, and some is jarringly contradictory (“You should smoke a cigarette. You should quit smoking”); tellingly, perhaps, the poem ends with the only response in the entire piece: “You should check that out. I’ll send you the link,” setting up the rest of the collection as one which relies on the sharing of sources and the layering of images, references, and other works of art. In the back of the collection, under “Notes,” Meng lists references and links for many of her poems, bringing us to web locations that include a Flickr album, relevant background information, and a map showing someone’s internet check-in. These links resonate with the Wikipedia excerpts which serve as epigraphs to many of the poems, and also showcase a secondary concern of the collection: the epistemology of online referencing.
This layering effect is recalled in the calendar cycle that the collection works through, as moments collapse on themselves and many become markers that will return again the following year. The poem “Musical Chairs” traces this bobbing and stalling motion, circling around both personal and public events, and noting our cultural reliance on myths and structures—including that of time. Meng writes that it is “Impossible to recall / the world before / the structure exposed / its dependence on myth.” Later, in a section of the poem called “On the Anniversary of Our Spinning,” Meng considers traumatic events that root us in time, specifically recalling her memories of September 11 and the way that day has marked itself permanently upon our calendars. Time is portrayed as concurrent, not linear; Meng asserts in “Daylight Savings Time Begins” that this is “all one / continuous / eclipse.” If time is concurrent, always present at once, what does this mean for something like death? Meng touches on this continuity in the understated end to her poem “Google Maps”: “using street view ten years after your death / to find / your car still parked in your driveway.”
Even in this concurrent sense of time, however, come lapses, moments that cannot or will not be accounted for. Meng continues to disrupt the easy circularity of the calendar structure by including poignant moments such as in “At Impedment,” where diary entries document both daily life and the death of the father of someone close to the speaker. Serving as another organizing structure, the diary entries are prose poetry, skipping days here and there until the final few entries. On March 1, Meng writes, “Carl’s color has gone ashen. Everyone thinks they should sleep but is worried he’ll die if they do.” The following day notes that “Cherry blossoms let loose by the rain spangle all the city sidewalks,” while March 3 only records: “[LAPSE].” The final entry breaks into the poetic line for the first time in the poem: “It took twenty years to see a tree is not a tree / and twenty more to say it is a tree,” suggesting that there are certain things that can’t be said in prose or poetry alone.
And yet Meng investigates more than just lapses or spaces in time; she’s also interested in lapses within thought, such as in “R.I.P. Baby Hummingbirds,” where the speaker notes that she often mispronounces “depth” as “death,” a substitution which is “Not a slip / but a lapse becoming / its own invalid gift.” It’s no surprise, then, that another organizing image of the collection is that of a bridge, spanning over lapses in time and space; it is the building of a bridge itself, Meng argues, that “defines the middle distance,” spanning what was the “roaring expanse before a bridge exists.” Her examples range from the San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge—as photographed by Ansel Adams, a photo she references in her notes—to the passageway located between two black holes, called an Einstein-Rosen bridge.
Meng proves herself again and again to be quite at home switching between different forms and structures, from more formal lyric styles to casual prose poems. Several of her poems are haunted by the ghost of a phantom sestina: “Powerless against its outward reaching / my sestina went rogue. / This is not that sestina,” she writes in “Alternator, Also Known as Lunar Caustic, Occurring in the Interstices, and My Trip to the San Francisco Academy of Science.” She uses the theory of the sestina—that is, ideas of repetition and interweaving, culminating in the intricate final envoy—to create a form-less sestina:
Now back to that sestina I’ve been meaning to write.
The envoy went something like this:
There were synchronicities in my in-box that Valentine’s Day—
yesterday—too stark to explain
as synchronicities & valentines often are.
After this, she asserts, “This is not that sestina. But also it is.” The following poem, “The Century Plant,” finally gives us a sestina of sorts, at least at first glance. But look closer and see that Meng takes exciting liberties with the repeating words, swapping out the traditional repetitions for rhyming words and sight rhymes that rotate in dizzying sequence until the final lines where “another century / surrounded by its own collapse— / forever spiraling from the source craving / each simultaneous formed & ruined history— / until the beat synchs up to the self it overlaps.” Here again we return (as sestinas are wont to do) to the image of time overlapping itself, each tragedy and collapse repeating and ongoing, and formal structures not enough to save anything.
Catherine Meng’s The Longest Solar Eclipse of the Century is a meditation on life as we live it now, both in its dullness (“walking / from point A to point B / and back again, / cutting food / into other shapes of food, / moving the car / every second Tuesday for street sweeping”) and in its intricate beauty. Although Meng seems suspicious (as we all are) of our insta-knowledge and web-reliance, there is also something enriching about sharing a link in a book that anyone at home with a computer can access; the flow of information has never been wider or more democratic. The mere breadth of our knowledge—or its accessibility—somehow doesn’t guard against widespread ignorance or ongoing violence like we might expect; as Meng shows in her collection, the harsh reality of modern life is that it “doesn’t hold up against what I’ve been told.”