By Molly Peacock
published by W.W. Norton
review by Arthur Mortensen
All poems cited are from Original Love
Copyright (c) 1996 by Molly Peacock
I love desire, the state of want and thought....
For reasons of fashion and politics, often intertwined in America where the two are often indistinguishable from one another, it has been rare for more than a generation for a poet to write with unabashed passion about love and sexuality. You can count such poets on one hand, and of those who use the full palette, including meter and rhyme, the number is just a few, including Frederick Feirstein, Marilyn Hacker and Molly Peacock. The opening line from the opening piece, "Why I am Not a Buddhist," opens the door on this room full of Ms. Peacock's often form-stretching poems. She's not trying to deceive you. She is one of those writers, like Millay, who not only wants that passion but insists on it.
Because of your nose, like a leaf blade
turned outward; because of the veins, also
leaflike, but stronger, surging up your forearms;
because of the moles spotting your arms
and neck and face like a long mottled animal;
because of the thrillingly perfect grades you made;
because no other girl had you....
It's one of life's startling pleasures to find out that someone is looking at you like that, not as one might expect, based on some adolescent obsession or prevailing sexual myth, but in a way that you probably weren't employing in looking back, a way that searched out each detail that a finger's soft pad would soon be gliding over if desire had its way. Some of us find beauty in general expectations but miss the best of the close-up stuff. That's what this poem is about; it's about someone who wants to be close-up, who wants to be a lover, from the intense examination of unique detail to the purely animal marking of territory. This is what we do; and it's exciting to read a woman's view on this. Like it or not, men and women aren't the same sex; from expectation to experience, there are two general classes of story, and we have only rarely heard the one that Molly Peacock covers, and rarely with a mix of such frank delight and compassion by any poet.
Big as a down duvet the night
pulls the close Ontario sky
over the naked earth. Here we lie
gossiping in a circle of light
under our own big comforter,
buried nude as bulbs. I slide south
to grow your hyacinth in my mouth.
Far above, the constellations blur
on the comfort that real sky
is to real earth....
So much has been written about the evils of love for the last twenty years that this period has associations for many that the McCarthy era had for the generation that fought World War II. Accusations, suspicions, declarations, prognoses of disease with presciptions for cures which show little regard for the consequences of a deepening alienation -- there's a reason why so little love poetry has been published since the 1960's. If nothing else, journals may not take it because their editors hold such stuff implausible. But implausible to whom? One wonders if it's mostly to the authors of such accusations and ideological tracts. In the great sea change in the lives of women in the past thirty years, it is more than arguable that one result is not a sharpening separation between the sexes but a far more interesting range of possibilities for both. That's not a popular notion in the love-is-oppression school of gender studies, nor is it held in esteem on the side of the reaction, but who wants to spend time with either side of that? Nothing is like it used to be, except perhaps in the minds of obsessive lecturers, and isn't that a pleasure? Still, it isn't easy.
I try to keep the promises I make
-- for each one broken breaks the world -- and seem
inhuman: no crack, no fissure, no mistake.
Control of life is fear for fear's own sake.
A teacup soldered or a split of silk reseamed:
fixing them, I keep the promises I make.
To lower the pressure, I lower the stakes;
the weight of covenants can make me scream
inhuman howls at my human mistakes....
In "Waking Up," which is sort of a cross between a villanelle and terza rima, Peacock's mixture of variation and repetition draws the ear across the stanzas, with the strong counterpoint of the A rhymes bridging them until the last two vary the pattern for a smooth conclusion on a couplet. Peacock, who can be overly humble about her origins and education as a poet, is no slouching experimenter here; she has a fine ear and this one, as do most of hers, sounds wonderful aloud. It's not quite like any older form; it is new development
Disruption in the bedroom -- sheets awry,
uncased pillows, curtains thrown to the blare
of investigating light, nightstand objects
jumbled on the floor near stacked new sheets -- why
was the nighstand drawer left open there?
My parents' whole room looked wrecked.
"Hey, what's in there?" Mother's face looked wrecked.
A box of chocolate cherries, lid awry,
nested in the opened drawer.
Showing a different world doesn't work unless you show what it's different from. The tender, sexy relationship between the narrator and her husband is all the more compelling when "Housecleaning" wipes the dust away from old photographs in memory such as those in this strikingly ambivalent poem as the narrator recalls her parents. Peacock's storytelling sense, conveyed so well by a contemporary diction and smooth hand with the complications of metrical lines, doesn't permit her to try to impress us or a critic with lines so overwritten than they obscure the reason the poem was written, a problem not uncommon among some writers and critics nowadays, who seem to think that each line is to be taken as the ultimate measure of the poem. Peacock, like all storytelling poets, on whatever scale they work, spits in the eye of such assumptions. That's why her poems are so vivid; eccentric cleverness is only visible to a certain type of critical eye, one not much favored here.
Siezed by fear and anger at my first job
--Everybody told me to blow off steam --
I got migraines on weekends, made to rob me
of what everyone called my fun. Prone, in dream,
drugged by Fiorinal in a darkened room,
I had a kind of respite. When the pain
stretched my skull into a filled balloon,
I fantasized a pink rubber topknot,
a sphincterlike valve to release the blame,
the terror and the panic -- the steam. I forgot
all about the sphincter, though I'd felt then
it was God's mistake to make us without it,
until I saw a nurse remove a bandage
from what was my mother's clear field of skin
and saw the sphincter reinvented again
as metastasized cancer. Ancient rage,
its outlet abandoned, became molten....
In part because of the way she presents herself at readings, with a mixture of serious and sardonic poems, and lots of personal anecdotes, a style that gets her a good, loyal audience, by the way, it is surprising to find that many, if not most, of Peacock's poems have more akin to "The Job," quote above, than to the amusing stuff. She's not simply aping Millay in writing independent expressions of sexual and emotional intimacy, for which Millay was rightfully admired and loved; Peacock gives evidence of a much more independent and complicated life than Millay ever dreamed of having. Indeed, it is difficult to recall a single poem of Millay's that has an impact quite like "The Job." The conflation of the unexpected prison of her first job (the paradoxical price of independence) with the imprisonment of her mother in a failing body, a body that gave both she and her daughter life, leaps off the page, as do many poems in this book.
Those poems about the narrator's mother can be overwhelming, in a strain of writing that has become increasingly significant in narrative poetry of the late 20th century. Too often it is women confronting the onset of illness and imminence of death in parents. More men ought to try their hand at it; such subject matter is elemental and bears repeated examination, to remind readers and hearers, and to confirm a reality too often concealed. We so carefully segregated the old from the young, sickness from the healthy, and death from the living, that such a turn, as in the recent book Ways of Dying, or here, in Original Love is a relief, as grim as the subject matter might be, particularly where the subject is your mother, or a spouse endangered by a serious illness.
...I've covering again, boosting her up on the bed again,
fixing her sheet before she kicks it off again
above my birthplace reluctantly hovering,
eyes averted. I have seen it too much,
the gray-haired V of labia closed
around browned minora, poor cheeks scutched up
like a Jersey cow's, tail up, holes exposed.
If only my eyes were like a sculpture's,
smooth, unseeing. Is she without a purpose?
Organic brain syndrome, her new diagnosis,
says yes, she really is. But I can't feel sure
she's not insisting she's my baby....
It used to be when a man wrote prose like that, say, someone like Nelson Algren, the critics got down on the ground and genuflected. There's a reason for that kind of posturing and it's not just to curry favor with an author; it's an acknowledgment that the author has crossed the threshhold from simple reporting into passionate storytelling. It's also admission that much writing, including most criticism, is so much of lies and nonsense that a door being opened, as it is in the astonishing poem quoted above ("The Gown"), makes one very pleased that W.W. Norton has seen fit to print Original Love by Molly Peacock. Don't you see fit to miss it. It is highly recommended.
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