By Maureen N. McLane
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010, ISBN-13: 978-0374292959
Reviewed by Paul Otremba
I’m thrilled to have a review by the compelling young poet and critic Paul Otremba. Beautifully written and engaging, he places Maureen N. Lane’s book in the context of Romanticism as a way to view experience and language: “an abundance of interests” in the world—a world enough.
A Self for the World by Paul Otremba
One paradigm to characterize Romanticism is humanity’s internalization of the myth of our fall; what keeps us out of Paradise is not any external act of sin but the very fact of our consciousnesses, because we find ourselves to be, well, selves. In the context of this literary tradition, the title of Maureen N. McLane’s second collection of poems World Enough is provocative and pleasantly ambiguous. Is it world enough because the poet or the speaker of these poems has resigned to only a partial, alienated existence, a subjectivity divorced from communion with the universe? Is it satiric, saying with ironic bravado, Okay, I’ll take this diminished thing? Is it the exhaustion of Weltschmerz? Or does it mean to state an end to or transformation of the post-Romantic conundrum in American poetry, the fight or flight from “self,” where one is asked to choose between a politically suspect solipsism or no self at all? An accomplished Romanticist as well as poet, McLane is certainly aware of these issues, and while her poems display a confident wit and occasional weariness with the world, it is the obstinate eye she turns toward the problem of self that makes these poems so welcome on the contemporary scene. It’s as if the book says, This is your world, so why do you imagine you as yourself (or at least as a representation of subjectivity) are not part of it?
The opening poem to World Enough speculates on an answer to that question. The problem of subject and object—of self and world—is perhaps an accident of language. “Roundel” begins with the quatrain:
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. (1-4)
Here, separation is created by the prepositions and the linking verbs that need discrete entities to establish relationships between them. Separation is also made by the nature of the grammar of sentences, where one closed off sentence must fall before the next in time. Those demarcations are what cause time to be perceived as causal linkages. There is also a slight hint at the apostrophe’s need for separation to show possession when the first line enjambs with the ambiguous “the sun’s,” which could be possession or contraction before the syntax completes in the second line.
The seemingly innocuous images and playful music of the first stanza compose the insidious “chain” that is “linking doing to what’s been done / to doing again and again” (5-7). The burden we bear, then, is our habit of seeing time as a series of separate moments, and an agent in that deception is our very language. The third and final stanza of this Swinburnian roundel recasts the initial stanza to expose and to critique the problem:
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. (8-11)
Now the majority of the linking verbs have collapsed into one central use of “to be,” which now makes a claim for equivalence rather than explaining the relationships between discrete objects. When we do finally return to the refrain’s subordinate relative clause, “the sea’s in,” the spell has been broken. We no longer need to mistake subordination in syntax for ontological alienation.
In the tradition of Romanticism, the way to deal with that alienation is to redeem the fallen world—and so ourselves—with the imagination. McLane offers another way to consider the issue that permits the book to accept the realities of having a positional self and to contain a poetry that intelligently reflects that. The opening section to World Enough (the book has five) is arranged so as to create an evolving identity across the poems through echoing lines. The second, third, and fourth poems respectively begin, “they were always thinking / about the weather” (1-2), “the weather itself / political and not a proximate / cause of politics” (1-3) and, finally, “Is Chesapeake Bay dead? / and the million jungled species / annihilated” (1-3). The fourth poem ends with the lines, “He’s watching the days / pass by our passing by” (22-23), and the fifth poem has the title, “Passage I,” which is the first of three “Passage” poems in the book. In addition to these linguistic parallels, there are thematic connections across the opening section that provide a portrait of what it might mean to be a self in the contemporary world, a world which includes the political, philosophical, aesthetic, and material contexts and contingencies of our moment.
The poem “They Were Always Thinking” complicates the old binary between nature and artifice by positing the end of thinking as “the trees arrested in an undying blue // the weather forever / the same as if painted” (10-12). Where our minds cease to be active, there can be only cold artifice and static nature. The difference is between the animated world as we experience it, which necessarily includes our thinking, or no real world at all. In “Premise,” the speaker acknowledges that “Nothing / in nature that is ours / is ours,” but instead of being crushed by the world’s withdrawal, the speaker accepts the provisional nature of being. Attitudes and ideas must change with our mutable knowledge of the world, so where once acts of weather only led to political actions and beliefs, we now find “weather itself / political.” We need only invoke global warming, Katrina, and Haiti to see how true that statement is for us. Yet, the speaker of this poem is not a fatalist; there is still room to be “wayward,” still room to be “erring.”
Throughout World Enough, there are many overt statements about what it is like to be a self, to be positioned in one’s subjectivity. One speaker exclaims, “Strange / to live in historical skin” (“Meditation/Central Park” 40-41), and another one questions,
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. (“Late October” 73-78)
Probably the most directly stated opinion on self comes at the end of the poem “Life Study”:
ribbons of identity
yet who else did that past
in the dream
that had me
up against the remembered wall (32-42)
That identity is not a solipsistic one. What a speaker asks in anxiety in one poem, “Was it merely personal / This interest in one’s own life?” (“Songs of a Season II” 49-50), is answered in another: “not that I was alive / but that we were” (“Passage I” 54-55). This speaker, and I will argue this book, is well aware that one’s subjectivity is always given significance through relations to other people and it is always in the process of being made. The tension of that negotiation is superbly enacted in the final section of “Passage II,” a poem that is fiercely honest and that has perspective on its sentiment:
in a mosque
tens or hundreds
dead and what
are they to me
and what is he
in a nonexistent
deaf dumb mute
The speaker here neither aggrandizes her concern for the world nor her self-contempt. The controlled self-criticism is redolent of Sartre’s indictment that we get the war we deserve. At times the self-criticism can mutate into flirtations with contempt for the world, but whereas that contempt can offer an honest tension in lines like “Time to admit / That misanthropy / Has a logic to it” (“Songs of a Season II” 89-91), it is less successful in the moments of fatalism or glibness like in the poem “It’s Not That.”
As shown in the quoted lines above, the dominant shape for the book is the short line, fluctuating between a few beats. These lines are often expressive and given to surprises and puns. This poet is not afraid to use rhyme and conventional forms and stanza structures. The form teaches us how to read the poems and book. The tutelary spirits are just as likely to have sprung from the forehead as from the thigh, and this combination of insight and sensuality even manifests playfully as the gods Athena and Dionysus in the metaphors:
a new passion for strolling
in unimaginable clothes may be born
a very goddess from my brain!
And I would not reject a god
born of my thigh (“Saint-Sulpice” 47-51)
The collection is further dominated by longer poems comprised of series of sections, a gesture that helps to reinforce the idea of a provisional self always participating in the act of its creation. The most conventionally self-centered poem is one of these sectioned poems, “Saratoga August,” which focuses more on subjectivity in a seemingly insular community. It might also be appropriate to mention here in the discussion of the shape of the poems something about the shape of the book. It is a really coherent and interesting read throughout, but at 131 pages, you definitely feel a kind of exhaustion when trying to read through it additional times. The later sections of the book don’t display the same level of careful selection as the earlier ones. This is not to say that any of the poems don’t deserve to be in a book, but this particular collection bends a bit beneath their weight.
Of course World Enough is not a treatise on subjectivity and the self in poetry. In fact, there are many other interesting avenues one could take in engaging this book, such as its ecological concerns, its fierce eye for culture high and low, its reflections on modern love, and what is has to say about cultural tourism. The abundance and depth of interests are only further testaments to the accomplishment of Maureen McLane and why we should be grateful to have World Enough.
Paul Otremba is the author of the poetry collection The Currency, published by Four Way Books in 2009. His poems, reviews, and criticism have appeared in such places as The Kenyon Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Witness, New England Review, The Houston Chronicle, The Washington Post, Poetry Daily, and American Poets in the 21st Century: The New Poetics. He is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor at Southern Methodist University.