Cate Marvin has crafted a dynamic follow-up to her first collection. The poems here are packed with sensuous language yoked to an almost compulsively competent and direct voice, convinced of itself if nothing else.
Marvin’s style seems deceptively personal, one might almost say confessional. But the truth is far tougher than that. Some of these poems seem crafted around the emotional utterance but it is Marvin’s deft handling of the personal that gives these poems texture. In “Lines for a Mentor,” the “I” pronoun exists like punctuation, all this personal talk disguising the fact that we’re not really reading into a life, or even a particular event. The poem here communicates a psyche, a consciousness, in lines like “I am lying at the bottom of a clothes hamper,” or “I never wanted to build a house without nails,/I never wanted to bend a horseshoe’s glowing iron.” The dazzle of these lines is that they are inscrutable as literal talk about life as we know it but still there is such stern emotional truth that we feel the meaning even as we register our inability to comprehend it.
Moments like this abound in the book, gutsy moments where Marvin trusts the movement of the poem enough to know that, sometimes, it doesn’t matter what’s being said so much as how. What results is an intricately unified text and a speaker who is fully developed but whose actions, reactions, whose very thoughts and thought processes, are unpredictable yet definite and certain.
This allows Marvin to write some fabulously open lines, with bare, emotional moments that might come off melodramatically were the tone of the book overall not controlled so well. The speaker of “Scenes from the Battle of Us” says:
I am like a table
that eats its own legs off
because it’s fallen
in love with the floor.
I could spend some words admiring the expert lineation here, breaks falling on grammatical pauses in such a way as to emphasize the halting nature of such an admission. But really most impressive here is the very fact that this moment is powerful. The speaker here, and throughout the book, is so consumed with and by love that the reader is genuinely moved by the pure emotion.
Truthfully, this is a complex book. For every emotional statement as that above, there are lines and lines of cool intellectualism; for every open hand reaching for connection, there is the violence of lines like “…I’ll let him keep/the scissors. He’ll find them in his back” (“Gaslight”). Complex, challenging but, ultimately, rewarding. Marvin’s real success in this book comes from writing poetry of the body but not from a particular body, brainy writing that doesn’t come from a particular person’s brain. These are poems that register a deep emotional narrative, poems where intuitive truths are shaped in formal logic and everything breaks down in the face of pure human love “as the ribs in my cage, one by one, begin to snap” (“A Fainting Couch”).