In the midst of reading My Poets by Maureen McLane, I decided that I had to also read one of her books of poetry. Poetry always takes longer to read than prose for me because ideally, poetry is read slowly, with care and attention and each poem is read more than once. But suddenly I found myself bumping up against my allowed time with the book, my last renewal used and the due date approaching. And so the slow care with which I began the book ceased and I ended the book in a mad rush. This very likely explains why I enjoyed the beginning of the book better than the final third of the book.
World Enough is broken up into five sections. Each section, sometimes long, sometimes only a couple of poems, has either a predominate theme, setting, or mood. I’d have to read the entire book through again to confirm it, but it seems to me, that there is a sort of curve with the first section beginning with a playfulness and a broad outlook moving in the next section to a more personal level and then peaking in section three, the longest section of the book, with intensely personal poems all set in Paris. Section four becomes slightly less personal, and section five, somewhat mirrors the first section, but not quite. Because, after the intensity of the middle Paris section, which deals with a relationship that appears not to have gone well, one has to be changed and can’t go back to being just as one was at the beginning.
I was delighted with a number of the poems early in the book, the wordplay was fun. Take, for instance, the very first poem, “Roundel:”
The sea’s in the dolphin, the sun’s
in the rose. The stars in my lungs
are breathing. The cloud’s in the rain
the sea’s in.
Time to unlink every chain
linking doing what’s been done
to doing again and again —
the seas in the dolphin the suns
in the rose are the stars my lungs
breathe in the clouds in the rain
the sea’s in.
I love the rhymes and the rhythm and the way the punctuation in the final stanza changes everything in the first stanza.
As I made my way deeper into the book I found I liked lines or parts of poems quite a lot but not so much the entire poem. When I finished the book this made me a little sad. I wanted to like complete poems. But going back through all the things I marked I see that it isn’t necessary to like a complete poem in order to enjoy the poems. There are plenty of parts that took my breath away. If I had more time with the book, I’d go back and try to figure out better how the parts I liked fit into the whole and, I suspect, I would then find myself liking the complete poem along with the part. Unfortunately, all I can do is share with you some of my favorite parts.
In “Saratoga August” in section two of the book, I was delighted by the riff on Wordsworth:
Of immortality are all very well
if all shall be well
but intimations of nothing
are more useful
if you have a residual
Calvinist soul. You don’t need
to be a voluptuary
of death or dream or your dark
heart to want to know how its shaping
hand is shaping every hour.
McLane, I find, is also wonderful at description. I loved these first lines from “Flâneuse” in the third section:
The woman in the closely cut pink coat
for us all
And, from “Transcendentalism” in section four:
organizing the air
around the golfers
a duet of geese
pausing as they flew over
one descending chromatic legato
the other’s staccato blats
making even the Sunday golfers
suspend their swing
Just two more, these from the fifth section. The first from “Late October:”
I wonder if I am living
a life or living
and what kind of question
or quest becomes a person
who seeks but can’t make
a clear thing.
This thought fits so nicely in a poem called “Late October.” What is it about this time of year that makes us think such thoughts? When the weather turns cold and the days grow shorter, we tend to slow down and turn inward. And coming after the height of the sparkling Paris summer earlier in the book, it is time to sort things out and figure out where to go from here.
Finally, from a rather long poem, “Passage III” which is the last but one in the book:
my skin some days
as wide as the sea
and the waves of the world
roll through, equable
but I am living this narrow
life and no other
except yours I imagine
some days we’re graced
or grazed by a shared bullet
Quite a different sort of sea and view on life than in “Roundel” at the start of the book. The final poem of the book, “Envoi,” does bring it all back around to the beginning with word play like in “Roundel” but the excited exuberance of of the beginning is gone. In “Envoi” we have clouds, not especially ominous or threatening, but gathering, and it all ends with the question of whether to go with the clouds or the sun that was just shining a little while ago.
World Enough is a good collection and as pleased as I was with her prose in My Poets, I am glad to say I enjoyed McLane’s poetry too. She’s not Rita Dove good or Kay Ryan good, but McLane is also young and this only her second collection (published 2010). She has potential to be really good, so it will be exciting to watch her and see if she can and does fulfill her potential.