Friday Dec 02

Inventing Constellations
By Al Maginnes
84 pages
Cherry Grove Collections, 2012
ISBN 978-1-936370-94-8
Reviewed by Paul Scot August
---------
 
When reading Inventing Constellations, the newest collection of poems by Al Maginnes, the first thing that came mind was the idea of connections. These well-crafted poems deftly lay out connections between the past, the present, and the future, exploring difficult long-term and challenging new ones between family members. They discuss the honest distances between intentions and results. And they use the recurring image of stars in doing so. For what are constellations, but a way that ancient civilizations played connect-the-dots to build larger images and tell narratives.
 
In the third poem in the book, the title poem, Maginnes’ speaker talks about his young daughter playing with a toy that shines stars and crescent moons on the walls. After his daughter falls asleep, the speaker says:
 
I lay on her floor awhile, inventing constellations, giving names
to those soon to vanish formations: The Bad Father,
The Child Rising, The House of the Family Dreaming.
Leaving her room, I switched on the lamp by her door.
We like the idea of a light above us, proving an end
to the dark.
 
These lines present the theme early on in the book about family and becoming a father later in life, with all its doubts, triumphs, and rewards. They set the stage for other poems in the book to dig deeper into these topics, poems titled Parenthood as Correspondence Course, Fatherhood in Middle Age, Parenthood as Bad Theology, and Parenthood as One Version of the Afterlife, where the speaker remembers back to a time when a neighbor said “It’s really weird to have a kid” and how…
 
That kid would be almost grown now, 
a shadow-casting citizen of a world that started over
 
the first night our daughter was with us,
and I lay awake as they slept, trying to plan
each of the small and unknown eternities before us.
 
Found in the third section of the book, the poem The Bridge is a tour-de-force and what I would call the highlight of this book. Maginnes starts the poem with a musical reference and name-checks Robert Plant and James Brown in the same opening line
 
The first time I heard a singer cry,
"Take me to the bridge," it was not James Brown
but Robert Plant imitating James Brown,
though my knowledge of music-and most things-
ran so shallow I didn't know anyone was
being imitated.
 
He quickly uses the multiple meanings of the word bridge to take us on a three-and-a-half page journey that includes the song bridge mentioned in the opening, a card game played by his mother, a childhood memory of playing with Tinker Toys, a rope bridge built at a Boy Scout camping trip, Hart Crane and his poem "The Bridge," and back to Led Zeppelin. He seamlessly leaps from image to image and back again, and does what he does very well, he moves us from the general to the personal.
 
Perhaps, like Crane,
I need to discover a bridge to lives
larger than my own. But we write
what is there to write. Last night I read a
a five page poem about the poet's search
for his dog.
 
Maginnes then moves to a memory of reading this same unnamed poet with a friend with whom he was “a little in love with” whose last words to him were "You must stop drinking."
 
Garnette is dead from cancer now, her boyfriend
of those years dead as well, from alcohol, 
depression, a final inability 
to be forgiven. This is history
to no one but myself.
 
But we use these histories to build the particular and personal myths of our lives, and each experience is “an islandin a series of islands, isolated and come upon mostly by accident” but our memories are the bridges that span these islands.
 
Maginnes is a detailed scribe of family life and the world that surrounds such a newly formed unit, and writes truthfully and without unearned sentiment about the places where they rub up against each other and connect. With poems filled with vivid memories of the past and moving elegies for the dead, poems that echo with the music of Sonny Rollins, Led Zeppelin, and that Dueling Banjos song, this book forms a constellation of connections between all he sees. In the end, it leaves us with a measure of hope, where both the reader and the speaker can hear “this noise, this music, this song I keep singing in / a house crowded by hope, furniture, our collected things, all of / them, I hope, for life.”
---------
 
Paul Scot August is originally from Chicago but has spent half his life now in Wisconsin. He has an MA in Creative Writing from UW-Milwaukee and works as a software developer. He is a former poetry editor of The Cream City Review and has been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize and once for a Best of The Net award. His poetry has appeared or is upcoming in Mead: the Magazine of Literature & Libations, South Dakota Review, Tygerburning, Connotation Press, Midwestern Gothic, The Los Angeles Review, Dunes Review, Naugatuck River Review and elsewhere. He currently lives in the Milwaukee area with his two children.