By Malinda Markham
New Issues, 2010 ISBN-13: 978-1930974890
Reviewed by Mari L’Esperance
Something Waits for Us Just Beyond Sight, by Mari L’Esperance
I have admired Malinda Markham’s work since encountering the distinctive, finely wrought poems in her debut collection Ninety-five Nights of Listening (Mariner/Houghton Mifflin, 2002), which was selected by Carol Muske-Dukes for the Bakeless Prize from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. I was initially attracted to Markham’s poems because I had read that she’d lived for several years in Japan and of her fascination with Japanese culture and language, a fascination that infuses her work. In her long-awaited and much-anticipated second collection, Having Cut the Sparrow’s Heart, Markham continues honing and casting her elegant poems with a voice and sensibility that are uniquely her own. Also of note: the book itself is an object of beauty, gorgeously designed and produced. But between its covers are poems of exquisite precision and unsettling paradox. Here are the opening lines of “Abundance”:
Skin stretched tight and blue. I hear how barbed
the breath can be; night tenders it worse.
Nothing to do but count the cicadas
that dry on the stairs and burst open
at night. Summer swallows
its own heat. Some evenings, your body
is a memory sack, a bright sentence I use
to sing myself to sleep.
These are not images one typically associates with abundance, but Markham artfully gives us an abundance that is replete with opposites: richness and darkness, life and death.
In terms of the book’s shape, an epigraphic poem (“Mnemonic Devices”) is followed by thirty-two poems arranged in a section also titled “Mnemonic Devices,” which in turn contains two sub-sections titled “Creatures That Come When Called" and "Creatures That Do Not Come When Called". These free-verse, open-form poems are of varying length and structure. The final section is titled “32 Appearances of Echoes on Palace Grounds (Pictures of the Floating World)” and consists of a series of ten prose poems.
Inhabiting a liminal space (here/not here) and drawing upon dreams, myth, Japanese culture, and fairy tales, among other sources, Markham’s poems are filled with sensual detail, redolent with mystery, and steeped in a feeling tone that conveys, in alternating measure, a sense of keen apartness, longing, lack, and grief. In the wake of the recent tsunami in northern Japan, these lines from “What Gravity Demands” spoke to me:
All the songs are named after burial or defeat.
The glass island I called my own did not shield
the waves from me. When I drank the salt,
I grew a second body of salt
which hummed like strength and shining.
Night has peeled the shells from sea creatures,
and we cannot measure the shaking.
Water about the ankles, the city
rimmed in grief, and all its stringed instruments
torrid at night.
Milk, birds, fruit, children, leaves, creatures both actual and imagined, and hints of menace make regular appearances. The entire collection is imbued with a rich interiority; fear and a deep quiet co-exist alongside one another. Reflecting Markham’s interests in Japan (she currently works in New York City as a Japanese-to-English financial translator), allusions to Bunraku (traditional puppetry), Ukiyo-e (wood-block prints from the 17th-20th centuries), and other cultural references are threaded throughout these poems. From “Something Erotic in the Nape of the Neck”:
In the puppet theatre,
an old man weeps in a woman’s voice.
All the assistants are blindfolded
in hoods. Without seeing their mouths,
I can’t swear that they’re real.
Markham masterfully employs numinous images, voice, and syntax to create a feeling tone that is as understated as it is extravagant and sensuous. Always restrained, rarely direct, her poems make whole worlds that take us to places deep within ourselves where we are moved, destabilized, enlivened, and transported. Markham brings us to the very edge of revelation—then, just as we’re getting our bearings, veers into another register. From “Just Past this Road Lives a Figure Imprisoned in a Tower”:
People harbor warmth in ways that almost
Make them sing. There are few
Words to speak about distance
Enough. Do you wake at night shaking?
Do you want to, but sit very still
Instead? Night places cold palms
Over all the eyes of flowers.
There is nothing wrong
With stillness, with what it clothes
And uncovers again.
And from “The Outing”:
This must be the path. Something waits for us
Just beyond sight. Night reels itself in,
Colors drain from the trees, then stars
Are drawn across the grass
Markham’s is a poetry of scrims and scarves, of meaning held just out of reach—not to frustrate, but to build a sense of wonder with layers of feeling and image without concretizing either, which would diffuse their magic. Autobiography is reduced to mere traces. The artificial divide between human and nonhuman recedes as stones, foxes, insects, and fish come alive and inhabit these poems as dream figures, otherworldly and faintly dangerous.
Not surprisingly, I felt most compelled by the series of prose poems that closes the book, which may say more about my personal bias than anything else (several of the poems in this last section have a noticeable Japanese cast to them, rendering them culturally and imagistically congruent for this reader). Reading like small fables, they possess a dreamlike, impressionistic quality that is amplified by the absence of conventional line breaks and stanza breaks. Here’s “[The Connoisseurs Have No Eyes]” in its entirety:
Each day is crisp. Ice slips whole from morning leaves and the eyes of
fish are terrible things. He folds each day to a boat that seams across
water almost too narrow to hold it. The boat does not falter. Paper
has (he thinks) no other sound in this world but gold.
There are moments in these poems when I longed for less remoteness, more relatedness, for an unnamable something—more tangibility? embodiment?—to ground me. Correspondingly, it is exactly this longing, this sense of incompletion and if only… that fueled my reading, as with each fresh encounter I gained a greater sense of the full range and depth of these remarkable and beautifully made poems, and will continue to over successive readings.
Born in Kobe, Japan, Mari L’Esperance is a Hapa poet whose first full-length collection The Darkened Temple was awarded the 2007 Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry and published by the University of Nebraska Press in September 2008. An earlier collection Begin Here was awarded a Sarasota Poetry Theatre Press Chapbook Prize. L'Esperance's poems have appeared most recently at Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, Poetry Kanto, and Whale Sound. She has guest posted at Prairie Schooner’s blog in response to Japan’s earthquake and tsunami.