I rarely get poetry reviews for this blog, so I was pleased when poet and Army wife-and-veteran Caroline LeBlanc contributed this in-depth, very smart poetry review, a Jungian analysis of two collections by contemporary poets. It previously appeared in Poetry Matters, July 2014.
This is not a quick read, but a meaty one. LeBlanc makes great connections across pieces — from Persephone and the pomegranate seed, to folklore (Baba Yaga, the Slavic witch!). And these lines from one of Loring’s poems stopped me in my tracks:
Still, the sky clears, our bed stays warm,
our children grow, fathered by that
uncursed piece of you we hold.
Poetry fans, Carl Jung fans (are you out there?), sit back, relax and enjoy — Andria
COMPARATIVE REVIEW OF LOCAL NEWS FROM SOMEPLACE ELSE BY MARJORIE MADDOX & THE HISTORY OF BEARING CHILDREN BY JACQUELINE MURRAY LORING
We cannot get away from violence/tragedy in our world, though we can make a good stab at it if we live in the right place and have the right amount of money. Even then, as the title of Maddox’s book, Local News from Someplace Else, implies, the daily news brings us with reports of violence/tragedy from around the world.
Although no more than 1% of the US population has a member of the family serving in the US armed forces, hundreds of thousands American men and women have served in combat during our last thirteen years of war. Their return and reintegration into family and community is too often complicated by the physical and /or emotional wounds of combat. This was also true of those returning from the war, about half a century ago, which set Loring on the path of wife to a Vietnam veteran. The History of Bearing Children recounts the effects of war on the returning soldier, spouse and family. In the books under review, Maddox and Loring each take on matters easier swept under the rug.
Local News from Someplace Else, with its three sections and 65 poems, includes poems prompted by both tragic and comic headlines, as well as mainstream family concerns. History, with its 32 poems, offers us pictures of how a wife and family can choke for years in the aftermath of the early life war experience of one of its members.
After considering several organizational schemes, I decided to structure the discussion according to a condensed outline of Maureen Murdock’s The Heroine’s Journey, her variation on Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey—both books worth the read, if you haven’t already. Having spent twenty years as Jungian psychotherapist, I find archetypal layers in many things. My apologies to the poets if I am reading things they did not intend into their poems.
In my opinion, both these books describe a version of heroine’s journey. They contain accounts of wrestling with darkness in the process of birthing self in relationship with others: spouse, children, and anonymous others who impact their lives through personal contact or the media. Both compassionately imagine and engage their own and others’ suffering during the steps of their heroines’ journeys recounted in the poems.
In this review, we will look at ten poems, two for each of the following stages of the heroine’s journey: her ordinary life; her call to the heroine’s journey; her trials; her underworld experience; and her step onto the road of return, or in more mythological language, rebirth.
I. Ordinary Life
Most of us quite reasonably want a happy, comfortable, and rewarding life. Some of us are lucky enough to get it. What ends up being ordinary for one person may not be ordinary for another. And poems about ordinary life events, especially those written from the distance of time and experience, often contain foreboding about the challenges life, or fate, will throw in along the way.
Loring’s poem, “Engagement,” starts with a trip to Boston antique shops to find just the right ring. The search brings back memories of her Aunt’s stories that “in the sun along the riverbanks/of the South China Sea stones lie,/fill with hope, wait for lovers.” Romantic images on first reading and until the reader realized that Vietnam is on the South China Sea. The ring, with its smooth jade stone and sharp cut diamonds, is “[a] part of my life,” what outsiders see as well as the meaningful and mundane chores of family life. To this point we have a moving poem about the symbolism of a jeweled ring. It could easily fall into sentimentality. Like a snake in the South Asian jungle, the poem turns, at first, almost without our noticing. “Sometimes in sunlight/I caress it, stare into the opaque green/ consider my vows, imagine/other settings, aunt’s yarns”—but these are not yarns about “scarabs and jade” in rivers. These are “yarns/ of damsels in distress, a captive princess,/lady warrior: all with blessed hands/they wore their rings into battle.” The poem ends with the tension of these images, moving us from the smooth “jade” life to the sharp facets of a cut diamond, a marriage that will also be a kind of battle ground.
Like a number of Maddox’s poem, “Indelible” is a tongue-in-cheek account of an absurd mythological-underworld-like wedding where the groom added a wedding ring tattoo to his extensive body art. In a delightful play on image and word, the wedding included on the spot tattooing, after which “fuchsia-dyed cake injected, / inconveniently, with badly burnt brandy/ was cut in precise slices.” And here, with this “fuchsia-dyed cake…/ …placed on a skin of napkin//which is what I ate,” we slide into a hint of Persephone’s story of eating the pomegranate seed, which forever joins her to her underworld lover. But the speaker inverts the image. She ate the cake deliberately “the moment I saw your permanent eyes, /a half-heart tattooed so vividly/ on each matching lid.” This could be an applied tattoo, but I read it as the delicate web of blood vessels often visible on human eyelids. Consequently, instead of being imprisoned in the underworld, this cake eater lands in the world of the ordinary love, remembering, however, the “burnt taste” hint about what other elements ordinary life might entail.
II. The Call
Historically, child birth has been an ordeal on the order of male combat, since so many women lost their lives in the birthing bed. While modern women seldom die in childbirth, and have more control over question of whether and /or when to become a mother, pregnancy remains a tricky threshold event. Pregnancy opens the door into what happens after the pregnancy—whether it results in the loss of a child or the obligation to raise a child to adulthood. It is such a womanly and common patch that it seldom gets recognized for the heroic series of ordeals that it entails.
In Maddox’s “PLEA TO AN EMBRYO,” the speaker, in the voice of a parental “we,” addresses her unborn child, barters with the embryo inside her about all the things a parent and teenager barter about. The bitter sweet implication is that the embryo is as willful as a human adolescent. The dream, hope, plea is that the fetus will stay put in the womb long enough to have a chance at becoming an adolescents. This child is wanted and already loved, and the parents who love her beg her to “Wait, take your first breath. Think/before you split/ into nothingness. You’re still//under our roof/and rules.” The speaker seems to understand that she has a greater chance of enforcing rules with a rebellious adolescent than she does of forcing the unstable fetus to “[s]tay put.” The poem, its tone rooted in good old-fashioned sympathetic magic, ends with a variation on one of the most common promises made by exasperated parents, “you’ll understand/ if you’re older.” If the poem has not already left the reader breathless, the substitution of “if” for “when” will knock the wind out of her.
In Loring’s “Perpetual Ritual,” the “normal” dynamics of mother/fetus/father are intruded upon by the husband/father’s flashback from his time in Vietnam. All starts well. “My finally pregnant belly/ outlined safe and high, adjusts to your gentle rocking.//I watch you/stroke our unborn child.” As if the poet counted, bad luck enters on line 13 when the father’s “suddenly closed eyes” cue eight lines of “booby-trapped memoirs” about the wartime death of a pregnant Vietnamese woman, “her yellow gaping belly, that child,/your bloody friends all dying.” The speaker also grieves, “I kiss your mouth too late/ to save you from this battle.” And, as happens after every death, there is eventual resignation and acceptance, and the rhythms of life go on, however stark and limping. The last line reads, “In the morning I’ll change our sheets.” These parents do not seem to be in danger of losing their child, but the traumas of war leave them both in danger of being lost to that child as they embark on the simultaneous journeys of child and each other rearing and recovery from combat related trauma.
Carl Jung said that if we do not choose to follow our destiny, it will come to us as fate—tempted or survived. Professor Elizabeth Vandiver of the University of Maryland defines the “fatal flaw” as a past decision that has negative consequences the character did not foresee when we made the choice. Once she has answered the call to the heroine’s journey, the heroine must make the best choices she is capable of and hope they are the choices that will lead her to the treasure.
In Maddox’s poem TWICE, a man and a teenage woman, with no connection to one another, both survive their encounters with lightning. TWICE is written in couplets with an irregular pattern of near rhymes. And I must mention the lovely, and humorous (in a black-humor way) allusions Maddox works into the narrative, which serve to lift the mundane story into at least the literary, and perhaps the archetypal, heights. When he was struck the man was below a “split tree/ spread-eagle above him like a Frost poem / wounded. And that made all the difference.” Meanwhile, the teen fell victim to “lightning’s long finger tapping her twice, / a parody of the daVinci painting? /For weeks she was a celebrity.” Both tempted fate and both won. To this point, this is a nice narrative poem, with some classic allusions. But as in many of her poems, Maddox follows the story with reflective stanzas.
But what odds we all give and take,
daily loading blank dice into our hopeful palms.
Bad things happen in threes,
but it’s twice, the highly unlikely,
that slips in in the middle
and slips us up.
Maddox could end the poem on this hopeless note. Instead she ends with a challenge to “the survivors of ‘bad things,’ / of storms blindingly fierce and electric.” Storms—natural, emotional, bodily—that leave us asking if
even on clear, bright days,
will we continue, with hope
or fear, to look up straight
into whatever warms us?
We could claim, as the poet reports the papers said, “He is a fool,…/and should have known better.” But, in fairy tales it is often the fool who survives the trials, finds the treasure, rescues the captive, returns home. Heroes and heroines often tempt fate, remain or go when good sense cautions the opposite. There’s the famous line the Russian-Fairy-Tale-Ivan answers to Baba Yaga’s terrifying question, “Were you forced to come or did you come of your own free will?” The correct answer is “Both.” If not before, then certainly after she is a survivor, after she had answered the call, each heroine—dare I say, each poet, writer, mother, wife, et. al.—must decide if she will continue “to look up straight / into whatever warms [her].” TWICE is a good example of how Maddox takes tragic or quirky headlines, and invites her reader to reflect on what they represent when considered from a meta-perspective.
Loring’s “Curse the Rainbow” also recounts a thunder and lightning storm. “Curse” is almost a concrete poem, in that the lines flash about, much as lightning bolts would, until the poem resolves and the last four stanzas settle down. The images are reminiscent of combat and war: “the sky brightens,” “children flee… / after scattered horses,” “mist…blurs your face/criss-crosses your eyes,” “[y]our plea through distant thunder.” “[L]ightning / strikes” and “pounding memory / darts/ among / the branches.” And then the flashback: “that girl /who still runs from her burning skin.”
Even the wife’s response is full of war imagery: “blood red sunset,” I “damn the storm, the barbed wire between us, / want to scrape napalm / into your memory / to ease your pain.” How bad must the pain be if napalm would feel better? How desperate must a woman be to consider napalm a possible cure? How desperate was our government to douse Vietnam with napalm? You get the idea.
The next seven lines are full of despair and hopelessness. “[N]either your laughing children / nor my patient love / can keep you / from this moment. // I wonder if I can go on.” Again, the poem could end here, but the poet, like the heroine she is hangs onto a thread of courage and determination, and a vision of coming through the ordeal. The poem’s last lines, also cited earlier, introduce the speaker’s persevering and loving perspective in the face of challenges that would overwhelm many.
Still, the sky clears, our bed stays warm,
our children grow, fathered by that
uncursed piece of you we hold.
IV. The Underworld
You might well object, “Have we not already been mucking around in the underworld? It sure feels like it.” True, the tone of the poems has gotten dark. But the underworld implies surrender, a dying to all one has clung to for a sense of self and place in the world, and our previous poems ended on hopeful notes. Hope is false in the underworld, even if we pray desperately for it to not be so. It is important to not conflate the heroine’s journey underworld with any religious conceptions of hell as a place of punishment for wrong doers. It is an all too neutral place of darkness where the heroine realizes that cherished formulas for a good, happy life do not guarantee that life. The gods and fate are fickle.
Loring’s poems “Forward” begins, as many of hers do, with a homely task—this time cleaning the china cabinet. Two items set the course of the poem. First there is the tea set her aunt sent from Japan, when her aunt “was young / and thought a crisp salute / was the only price she’d pay / for her freedom.” A sentimentally archaic image for an archaically naive belief. Next the poet reaches “back into my yesterdays / to other teas and services,” specifically her wedding with its “forgotten …vows and promises.” This is a very ambiguous line. What kind of forgetting is recalled? The words of the ceremony, or has the spirit of the words been forgotten in the reality of her marriage? She continues her chore—in her dining room and in the poem.
[I] unwarp the porcelain bride and groom
who stood guard for us in frosting,
touch the bride’s cold cheek,
follow her lace bodice to her band,
the groom’s left arm, waiting,
trace the tear-drop beads
painted on her graying gown
wipe dust from her eyes.
Like the rich poem it is, “Forward” presents us with a simple story even as its images entangle us in multiple levels of meaning: from “forgotten wedding vows and promises,” to enduring porcelain that “stood guard” over dreams as insubstantial as frosting, to cold cheeks (no longer warm in the flush of romantic love), to “tear-drop beads.” All these images tell us of romantic love, tarnished by war, and tested by years. Romantic notions, which the poet has tried carefully to hold onto along with the other fragile treasures from her earlier life, have proved misleading. They have not stood the test of time. When she wipes the dust from the statuette’s eyes, she wipes the dust from her own eyes which “look through the pane / of the still-open door.” Leaving remains an option. The door is “still-open.” She could leave this heroine’s journey with its trials, try for a simpler, more ordinary life. Instead, she watches her “aproned reflection, // move goblets to hide the groom.” She stays, but she “buries” the notion of the romantic handsome groom and what, for her, has become a fairy tale version of marriage marketed by the wedding industry. As the marital enrichment movement folks maintain, a wedding does not a marriage make. The wife in this poem has accepted her consignment to the underworld that is her marriage. She has surrendered to her fate, which does not include the kind of marriage she hoped for as a young bride.
Even if you have never driven through dead and dying mining towns around the world, a careful reading of Maddox’s poem, “Minersville Diner,” will give you a good sense of the barrenness the industry creates, and the even greater despair it leaves behind once it has exploited the people and the land’s resources. It represents the underbelly of the good life most people seek. It is a manmade underworld which I visited many times when I was a consulting occupational health nurse with the National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety (now defunct).
People not relegated to life in dead company towns, even if they are visiting family rooted there, are always and only “[e]n route to somewhere else,” someplace implicitly better. They are uneasy with the stark surroundings, at once stifled and titillated by the intensity and dramatic despair of the place. Yet, the place is paradoxically somehow more invigorating than the suburban “dust of who-walked-out-on- whom,/ … our [own] abandoned mines of what is worse / than flipping fried eggs alone.” The tone of the poem reminds me of when, as a nursing student struggling with my own late adolescent depression, I would find perspective and a new energy for life when faced with the suffering of patients in the inner city teaching hospitals. There is a hierarchy to suffering, which does not negate the fact that no suffering feels inconsequential when we are in the middle of it. A visit to the Minersville Diner hits us over the head with the fact that, despite what corporate America and Madison Avenue tells us, the American dream does not guarantee “the good life” or freedom from painful experiences.
The poet’s image of the hot, cracked sidewalks before the diner takes us to the tenacity humans display when faced with surrendering to the vagaries of the underworld. As we should, we plan and scheme, and try with all our might to create a better life for ourselves and our loved ones for, “[w]ithout the planned gaps, / there’s be a hundred tiny fractures / in concrete, breaking more / than mothers’ backs.” We care for ourselves and each other with restaurants and bakeries, “‘Coming soon!’” We build churches to protect us from the fickleness of fate, to find peace with our place in things. Yet, even with the “blue dome of the church, its painted god stars winking knowingly, … we pass into the life we [can only] pretend is safe from explosion, from unexpected and total collapse.”
“Minersville Diner” recounts the speaker’s travels through and respect for the underworld, rather than her personal time served in that forsaken place. But her astute observations of the reality and how it lies in wait for each of us, make it quite clear that she is no stranger to its existential realities. In this poem the speaker serves as something of an experienced mentor or guide, for those who would dare undertake the heroine’s journey.
The most stripped down description of the archetypal cycle is life, death, and rebirth. Not all heroes and heroines complete the cycle. In myth, fairy tales and stories, the rebirth or resurrection represents the climax of the story. The denouement, or the resolution, of the story involves the heroine’s successful return with the treasure or elixir of life, etc. The return is often the step most difficult to accomplish. The next two poems place the poet on the cusp of rebirth, on the lip of the birth canal. Their creations, including the books under review, are proof that they made got the treasure back to the ordinary world, which is forever changed as a result.
Interestingly, winter storms figure in both “The Nor’easter” by Loring and “Ithaca Winter” by Maddox. What better image of death and the underworld than winter, and its accompanying frozenness, death, burial under mounds of snow?
In its eight lines, “The Nor’easter” “helps focus survival thoughts / empties my head of inside things.” All her other troubles are small compared to life or death situations, be they literal or figurative. When you are in the underworld, your every thought is for survival and return to the living. Next is the “swirl of stripped leaves, / whip of limbs, /the pelt of rain,” all classic images of internal turmoil as well as external storms. Still, the poet fears the next step, the sacrifices demanded if she is to be released from the stormy underworld of her war torn life.
The heroine writes, “I latch shutters, / resist the howling / of what wants out.” Is she caught in her fear of the next step, the sacrifices required to be released from the underworld of her war torn life? Is she refusing to leave a dangerous situation that someone, not so foolish, would walk away from? Or is she simply closing the shutters in order to seal herself in an alchemical container? We have only to read the last three lines together to find the answer: “resist the howling / of what wants out / on paper.”
The line breaks in “Nor’easter,” especially in the last two stanzas allow for multiple readings and create tiered meanings. As is her way, Loring creates depths of meaning through the intensity and intensly personal nature of her imagery. She is not a mere confessional poet, nor are her descriptions of violence in any way gratuitous. They are her lived experience and the lived experience of thousands of family members in love and relationship with men and women who served in the combat theaters of our nation’s wars, even when our political leaders sent them to fight in questionable conflicts. Loring’s poems are profound, skillful, and poignant documents about the effects of war.
“Ithaca Winter” by Maddox, is about a woman who goes into a winter storm to “undo who I was.” To let the wind “[unzip] / eventually what isn’t.” To let the snow “white-out absence,/ lost the clean slate entirely.” The last is an extremely stark image of wished-for self-annihilation. Until the penultimate stanza the poem consists of a beautifully lyrical, yet rather one-dimensional narrative about an existential crisis of some sort. The speaker is in so much pain she almost wishes for death in the underworld.
Then, the first line of the penultimate stanza catapults us out of sequential time and narrative. “I had a life disappear once.” When was “once?” Just before the events of the previous four stanzas, or another time? The rest of the stanza leaves me wondering. “I stepped out if it into the snow / …an old name and sorrow / stuck at the bottom in a drift.” Did the life disappear or did she leave it behind? The life or the disappeared life? Are they the same?
This poem makes the reader work hard. It’s a good thing the language is so beautiful. A definite but only implied shift occurs into the last stanza. The shift is reminiscent of a major scene change in cinema or TV. We aren’t prepared for the shift but, if we pay attention to details, we realize we are in a different setting. “When I stopped shivering, behind my teeth were words.” If the speaker stopped shivering, then she either froze to death, or she came in from the cold.
My vote? She came out of her winter underworld, out of its cold. But while her teeth chattered in the cold, they tapped out, quite musically in this poem, the words that now fill her mouth and, implicitly, wait to be—or have been—put to paper.
Those of us fortunate enough to never have had violence/tragedy, and their aftermath, intrude first hand into our lives often have little reason to deeply contemplate how it—and our denial of it— impacts our families and society. And it is not only war or school shootings in suburban schools that scream for attention. The poor and racially disenfranchised in America and the world, civilians in war torn areas, imprisoned and/or displaced people around the world—these and others live daily with suffering caused by violence and class related tragedies. We can easily be overwhelmed with the weight of it all. And yet, even if we don’t live in such conditions, or volunteer for war, or love someone who has, most of us watch the evening news, as well as movies and TV shows about war, tragedies, danger and heroism. Maddox and Loring redeem our often macabre fascination in their poems. They debunk feel good stories, and digest headlined and personal experiences of violence and tragedy. Their poems serve up their reflections, invite readers to ingest the bitter as well as the sweet offerings on the table. In this way, they cull some redemption out of otherwise senseless happenings.
Veterans and their families are, and are not, terribly different from other Americans. They, like others, including many poets and the disenfranchised featured in the headlines Maddox contemplates, know that suffering cannot be avoided. They have joined the ranks of those who know it is difficult, if not impossible, to bargain with the gods. They know that feeling betrayed when the gods are erratic in their regard for human welfare is self-deluding.
Marion Woodman insists that we can suffer neurotically, or we can suffer redemptively, the latter a requirement for living more consciously. Loring and Maddox are poets of witness who write about that which we would rather not see.They give voice to the unspoken, and what many consider unspeakable. In the process they redeem the suffering that motivated their writing. Their two quite different books share deep truths, and give voice to shunned, yet compelling, human experiences, with compassion, and without swinging a political ax.
About the reviewer: Caroline LeBlanc, MFA, MS, RN is a former Army Nurse, an Army wife & mother, and retired psychotherapist. As the Writer in Residence at the Museum of the American Military Family since 2012, she wrote the script for the museum’s Summer 2014 exhibit, Sacrifice & Service: The American Military Family. She co-produced & wrote the script for Telling, Albuquerque (part of the national Telling Project), a 9/11/2104 testimonial theatrical event where military veterans and family members perform their own stories. In 2014 she directed & performed in 4 Voices on the 4th, a collaborative spoken word performance with three other women military family members. Since relocating to Albuquerque in 2013, she has hosted a writing salon for women military veterans and family members. In 2011 Spalding University awarded her an MFA in Creative Writing. Her poems have been published in her 2010 chapbook, Smoky Ink and a Touch of Honeysuckle, as well as online and in a number of print journals. Her art work has also been included in a number of Apronistas Women’s Art Group shows in the Albuquerque area.
About the poets:
Director of Creative Writing and Professor of English at Lock Haven University, Marjorie Maddox has published Local News from Someplace Else (Wipf & Stock 2013); Perpendicular As I (1994 Sandstone Book Award); and six other award-winning books, as well as over 450 poems, stories, and essays in journals and anthologies.
Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation was a runner-up, finalist, or semifinalist at 30 national competitions. Local News From Someplace Else has been a finalist for the Samuel French Morse Poetry Award, sponsored by Northeastern University; for the Kentucky Women’s Prize, sponsored by Sarabande; for the Magellan Prize, sponsored by Button Wood Press; for the Mammoth Books Poetry Award; the Ashland Poetry Press Prize; and a semifinalist for the Crab Orchard Poetry Award, and elsewhere.
She lives with her husband and two children in Williamsport, Pa., birthplace of Little League and home of the Little League World Series. She is the great-grandniece of baseball legend Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers who helped break the color barrier by signing Jackie Robinson.
Jacqueline Murray Loring writes scripts, poetry and stage plays. Her poetry collection The History of Bearing Children won the 2012 of the Doire Irish International Prize. History was awarded 2nd place in the 2012 New Mexico Press Women competition. Her plays have been produced at the Provincetown Theater Company, Provincetown, MA. Her full-length play, Reflections for a Warm Day, was presented in 2007 at the Provincetown Theater/New Provincetown Players Festival. No Matter What, about trafficking of women in present day, was stage-read in 2010. Fight for Right and Freedom was produced during the 2012 Provincetown Theater’s 24-hour Playwrights Festival.
With the support of the Nam Vets Association of the Cape and Islands, she is presently working on a nonfiction book, Surviving The Peace After War. As the wife of a Vietnam veteran, she was one of the performers in Telling Albuquerque’s Fall 2014 production. She and her family live on a ranch in Albuquerque’s South Valley.There she writes, and helps her daughter care for the horses in her equestrian therapy stables, Enchanted Equine Adventures New Mexico, LLC.