Autobiography of a Marguerite by Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle (Hue & Cry Press, 2014), pp. 92, $25; Trouble by Jenny Powell (Cold Hub Press, 2014), pp. 48, $19.50; There are no horses in heaven by Frankie McMillan (Canterbury University Press, 2015), pp. 102, $25
From Hue & Cry Press, Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle’s first book is a proposed solution to a problem. The speaker, Marguerite, suffers from a mysterious illness – and the consequent depression and stalemate – and is trying to write her way out. The book is in three sections: the first intersperses two kinds of prose poem, the first more regular, the second more fragmented with frequent parentheticals. The poems in this section often progress by means of wordplay:
(How was your weekend?) Congested, squeezed, chalked, coped. Weak end of. Weakened, (I didn’t do anything) …
The book’s second section contains lists of several statements, which are peppered with footnotes:
The doctor told my mother that she1 couldn’t have
children, but a year later she was pregnant:
It was difficult to find a comfortable position because
everything2 was painful;
1 Today, beyond the windows, there’s a forest.
2 Pain needs room.
The footnotes come from texts written by two French writers, Marguerite Duras and Marguerite Yourcenar, and so underline the instability of ‘our’ Marguerite, the speaker of the poems, and encourage the reader to ask what ‘a Marguerite’ might sound like. Although pronouns referring to the speaker shift – ‘I’, ‘she’ or ‘you’ – it is clear that they refer to the speaker. These multiple Marguerites, along with the shifting pronouns, emphasise the alienating effect of the speaker’s sickness. A frequent tendency to break off mid-sentence – ‘Later that year, I became increasingly / She was on the train …’ – evokes disorientation, and sometimes distress.
The third and final section features reproductions of photographs, accompanied by even briefer prose poems. In one example, under a black-and-white picture of a young mother squinting and half-smiling, surrounded by her three young children, are the words:
The symptoms are no longer merely uncomfortable because they’re unpleasant; they are now uncomfortable because of what you believe they mean about how your life will be from this point on.
Marguerite tells a story, and thus sets up a narrative expectation. However, the book contains little rising action, and while a change is suggested at the end, there are not many signs of development along the way. The formal shifts are not matched by a similarly dramatic shift in content. The poems effectively evoke depression, but the problem with depression – as the speaker is all too aware – is that it doesn’t progress. The change suggested at the book’s end still doesn’t feel like the conclusion of the story; it is not enough to lift a reader out of feeling stuck. ‘The happening,’ as the speaker writes, ‘is still happening.’ One of the risks the book takes is becoming a litany of symptoms:
It was difficult to find a comfortable position because
everything was painful;
My head felt incredibly foggy, as though
Instead of going out with friends, I stayed at home
with my mother,
After that, I decided not to speak unless someone spoke to me first;
That year, I skipped school a lot.
She became panicked and fainted during the play –
her heart was beating very fast and felt like she
I never believed I was going to end up in a
My mother and sister were always
And because of the pain and swelling in my wrist, I
couldn’t write or
People would ask her what the matter was, and she
would say, Nothing, this is just my face
However, this may be necessary for the book’s project, to access this repetitive, claustrophobic territory. The speaker is trying – with the awareness she might not succeed – to write her way out.
Butcher-McGunnigle is a gifted writer, and a careful observer of human behavior: ‘There’s no need to worry, he says, which means, there’s no need for him to worry …’ The speaker’s obsession with seemingly minor detail is sometimes reminiscent of Lydia Davis:
I need to go outside but my neighbor is out there. I’m waiting until she goes away … She asks me where I am going. I am going to the hospital, I say. It’s the third time I’ve broken my arm this year. She bends down to cut the head off a dandelion. Is that so, she says. Well, did you know, once I went to three weddings in a month.
The best work in Marguerite is when the speaker reflects on her experience indirectly, through fragments, parentheticals, use of other characters (like the example above), or footnotes. I found myself typing out the footnotes at the bottom of the page on their own, as small poems that allowed room for mystery:
1. I go slowly so as to gain time.
2. She seemed to have retreated back into her childhood.
3. A clump of nettles in flower.
4. If the story were acted in the theatre, it would be like this:
5. Blackout in the auditorium. The play begins.
This collaboration between Marguerites allows a reader to pour her own meaning into the spaces, in a way that the earlier, longer excerpt does not. Butcher-McGunnigle already knows how to leave these spaces; a poem of hers online concludes:
Crossing the road, is it already written.
A wisdom loves her into sighs.
The old wind strokes the hills.
A small conversation at the bus stop
and a stranger finds further.
A grave becomes more serious.
Overall, Marguerite presents an intriguing and moving process, propelled by formal innovation, a strong voice and syntactical play. It also shows what Butcher-McGunnigle is capable of. We should definitely look out for what she does next.
Jenny Powell’s booklet from Cold Hub Press, Trouble, is the sixth collection of Powell’s poems. The poems in Trouble are spare and distant, often favouring abstract language. Powell’s poems frequently end in negation: ‘No seam of light, / no final lines, no picture frame’; ‘No stars, no moon, somewhere / …’; ‘No stopping / for the cyclist, no second glance at the train.’ It is notable that she concludes the collection with an acceptance: ‘Turning / to the offer / of a lift home.’ Powell’s poems employ regular stanzas, generally of two or four lines, and occasionally engage in musical play: ‘Ghost-white mist haunts / the rivers, primes gullies’.
It is the moments that combine precision with mystery that work best in the collection, such as the moment where the speaker declares:
… It is only when Jenny dies
that the time for every purpose
is under heaven.
‘Under heaven’: where is that? Is it earth? Is it hell? It’s the kind of line that can open a poem up, makes us look back to what’s come before. The moments of action in this collection are also a delight for their relative rarity: ‘We’re invading the south / my father shouts, from the Normandy / shore’, coupled with the speaker’s distancing rebuttal: ‘… I was never there, I said, / I was never in that war.’
Occasionally the mystery is not given enough space to breathe. A poem called ‘An invitation to magic in the long grass’ deals out magical clichés; a character pulls a rabbit from ‘his magical hat’ (surely a redundant adjective), and after some sexually suggestive language, the poem concludes: ‘Soon I will see the tricks he can really / do; his magic that lies in the long grass.’ The earlier language has already shown us an element of seduction; there is no real revelation in being told that such a seduction will – at some stage – occur.
Frankie McMillan’s new collection from Canterbury University Press, There are no horses in heaven, employs more surreal images than Powell’s, and engages in greater formal variety, using stichic forms as well as fixed-line stanzas, with sparse punctuation. McMillan is the author of another collection of poems as well as a collection of short stories, and Horses features some long prose poems, including the page-long ‘We three’, which spans a single sentence.
McMillan’s poetic world is a playful one, as some of her titles suggest: ‘In the nick of time, a deer’, ‘The campanology of wishes’, ‘He reads the welcome of swans’. The collection also includes poems written about the Canterbury earthquakes: ‘One by one they fell, cracking / limbs, a multitude of leaves’. The speaker creates many startling images, as in the intriguing poem ‘1925, Henry Souttar does the unthinkable’:
… a pig heart’s sewn inside
an empty chamber, an opening
in the atrium where I carefully poked
my finger in order to palpate
the heart valve of a woman
laid bare on the gurney
The majority of the poems begin with a character: the speaker’s father, a corsetiere, a glass blower, a steeple keeper, a ferryman. In fact there is such a wide array of characters – I have only listed a few – that I find myself wishing there were fewer characters and more time spent in their worlds. Yeats once wrote:
A poet writes always of his personal life, in his finest work out of its tragedies, whatever it be, remorse, lost love, or mere loneliness; he never speaks directly as to someone at the breakfast table, there is always a phantasmagoria.1
While we might not agree with Yeats, we can agree that McMillan is definitely not speaking to us across the breakfast table. But while her poems’ startling, historical detail is engaging, there is a sense of being whisked from one scene to the next, creating a broad range of material, rather than a deep phantasmagoria.
In summary, however, these three collections by contemporary women poets use different methods to conjure their own kinds of beauty: glimpses of crushing illness and fragmented identity; a father’s shout from the battle of Normandy; and the print of white gumboots inside the belly of a whale.
1. W.B. Yeats, The Collected Works of W.B. Yeats Vol. V: Later essays (Simon and Schuster, 1994), 204.
ALICE MILLER lives and works in Vienna. She held the Grimshaw Sargeson Fellowship in 2014, and her first collection of poems, The Limits, was published by both Auckland University Press and Shearsman that year.
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