Reviewed by Robert Mueller
"History and Grace and All Forms Needful"
Dialects, specialty literary languages, character typologies and the self-effacing poetry-form personality; rhetoricity for its own ironic consequence and the occasional languid lacquered effetism — they all serve one purpose, to hone the expectant transparency. Jill Magi’s strange verse-writing, becoming one moment crisp, another moment aleatory, amnesiac, deft or drippily-awkward,1 as it may and it will, seeks to unsplash this whitewash. By careful jutting it Xes-out or routs the traces of veneer rather than streaking the shadows; shows not edge but rather wholeness, depositing dappled dents and shallows rather than this other’s retread face. What does that mean to her readers whose fascination these scrubbings likely sustain? What does it avail, her pleasure in forms that are anything but shapeless, and that, if they do not pulsate wildly, still live in cross- and hatch-rhythms?
Toward these fleshed tendencies will veer the answers in the splendid and odd touches comprising Torchwood (Shearsman, 2008). So we get talking and telling into the mix, without smothering veils either, as in the plain omelette, “A Stone,” that places inaugurally (and why not?):
You are in the company of your twin sister
and another schoolmate
crossing a common in the city of Portland, Maine
in the 19th century.
This is heading to a foundling’s founding tale, and it aptly presents its dangers when it tells you that “A stone is thrown and this stone hits you, / Ellen Harmon, on the nose.” — resulting (according to the sonnet’s chasing couplet) in “The origin of the religion you invented and I was born into. / ‘Because a stone was thrown.’”
Hence the real religious sonnet is not that pretty and deep meditation cast in a pretty form, but rather a plainly documented, driven foray into the religion’s becoming of itself. Magi’s religious sonnets mark one of a series of sections devoted to poems in particular forms, broadly defined.2 In this section the form is specific, but it is clear that Magi goes out of her way to specify unfamiliarly. She ordains and she enjoins, and she portends a subject of history, in fact documenting a personal and family connection with Seventh Day Adventism, into frames of 14 lines a-piece. In, not out of, history, therefore, the form she shelters thus proves its use, its practice lyrical, and its practice material. It buttresses communal belief by naming, as it were, its sufficient adequation. Of a credo, of a comity and a commitment, the sonnet burnishes its strange and thundering objections to and fro over that hard-torn, that handwrung spiritual peace, heralding someone’s sectarianism a time and a day ago, someone’s once and future home and thralldom.
Often discussions of strong poetry recount the scheming, by invasion or by misdirection, against accepted discourses. The strength of Magi’s poetry has a less obvious appeal, so that looking at her forms may progress to wonder, and may halt too swift, too primed an explication. Some may even say that poetic discourse and its appendages could be forbidden for a pregnant time. Not under duress, a subversive poetics, seeking to undermine the structures it would oppose, might seem easy to prosecute these days. Bravado, courage might lie in so many fashions of opposing, and might seem not so much false as impotent. What Magi attempts, to her less presupposing credit, is never less than difficult. Though aware of “a counter-hegemonic narrative,” she passes it a little by, letting difference find its own sweet pitches. The poems in Torchwood gravitate to find the lay of their eventful questioning. They have their sway in Magi’s protocol, because perhaps not so violent nor so unfriendly; and perhaps this is how Magi prevails against a suspended hearing. We may put it mildly and thus truly engage the result. Her gestures, we may say, simply overturn or upend expectations, leaving you with just what you have, and with some of the joy and challenge along with a strangeness that appears on the surface but will not blot, inkily, with designations fervently to deplore and then restore. 3
And thus, while Magi’s religious sonnets do not strike one as possessing a sonneteer’s reach and flair, in the same breath her questioning what “thinking the kite” (in a later section) means does not strike out in boldness. Yet it is not as if it were clever but somehow dull or lusterless or pedestrian. After all, this thinking, which is a doing thinking, is about a form of soaring. And the device delights in the open space, as do the other book’s procedures. An assurance bred of this openness comes to transfigure anytime, and it comes to rest by a clear sinking in these phrases of thinking otherwise:
Thinking a scratch
Thinking to register the sound means
how to under thinking
buckled or pockets
Thinking sour while not so
I feel to say, walking
I feel against it, pressing
I feel toward today
I feel story
I feel sense
So “thinking a kite” runs along down the page and urges and flirts with its theme unthreateningly. So the subject entertains its negative structures of fresh embrace. It says “I,” and it says “willingly.” The absorption is apparent, and though it results in a page of suggestion that does not argue and cause the reader to fight back, and is formatted strangely as a mere flip, or pure element of arrangement, indeed intended for our notice but consisting of just this right wing for margin justification rather than the left; and though right and left are not these fierce rivals they vaunt themselves to be, and the experiment with syntax is not so much a strident challenge as just what it is, and what it appears; nevertheless we read from left to right and right to left and we read not wisely, we encounter, we must a little.
So another question hovers. How will the poetry and its revolutionary basis of this thinking language seek to transform? How will, in fact, thinking writing proceed? Can writer, reader and teaching and learning inhere to easy parlaying of misconstructions, mindful and accepting on the one hand, and divided truth-attentions, inquisitive by simple attraction on the other? Poetry of a world thrown against it extends what Magi calls “constructing a grammar,” surveils by unwitting writ a project of citizenship, of a particular slated citizenship of a particular shared subject, in which the poet pays honor to her task and lets the self-seriousness of language experimentation in all forms have its days elsewhere (perhaps). Some of the new grammars are both tidy and intricate; the challenge Magi accepts, though met with care, allows for her cleanly Untidiness. A poetics not filtered but slightly helter-skelter in midst of probing occupation in this barmy sentence untracks, it resurrects a strange ordinariness and nearness of all problems’ factors. An unveiling in tow, Magi can draw gruffly on her sensitivity to language acquisition, with all of its less than overwhelming and cute (but not too cute) troubles. She can employ the questioning thus quizzically to demi-urge a get-around and a go-around performance of writing and thinking. By her finalizing forms she can thus instruct in the ethics of social behavior and action, can prompt through subtlety sans trickiness. She can think to achieve that cultural form to inform, somehow realize a time-honored privilege of strong and secure poetics.
It is remarkable how each choice of form marking each section in Magi’s book declares its own direct embrace of its own needs. The pungency of the writing, always a “how-to” and uncanny art of writing and of speaking, sets you out to take the plunge, not scurry from style to style in great slap-stick carousel of competing, but immerse voluntarily in that very own element. Skirting some risk and some action and all lovely pizzazz, the quality of engagement boasts a sure-footed emphasis, all the while diapasoning intellect and clothing its otherwhere in secret, emerging action.
Consider for this purpose the amazing daily poems (the section titled “2002”), and their pedigree of the short poem in image or adage or spot-reportage, and note in the entry for “10/12” the theme of bridging, here so anguished as if almost ghostly:
bridge-through, I don’t
migrating on the train
I theory inside
Bridging is just one of many possible metaphors, and a homespun figure in the bargain, as it comes into play when training for speaking. Just what speaking, just what home experience, continues to be the wonder. Syntactical displacement is equally apparent; equally at hand the poet sorts through her inquiries. Still and still more holding in place, her writing conveys installing progress to natural growth. An effect of tactful, well-honed and yet well-enacted receptivity plucks along the courage to see and feel and affirm as if once again, on a stage that covers more precariously than you might think.
New York City