Friday, November 14, 2014

Co-editor Barrett Warner reviews Mary Ellen Redmond's The Ocean Effect

If you wanted to send Mary Ellen Redmond a love note you would be wise to time its arrival for midmorning. The other hours—the darker ones and the brighter ones—are already taken. In almost all of these, the speaker, or the subject, is lying down or trying to lie down, tormented by an almost imperceptible and sinister yoga between the word and the world. In her first poem “Dangerous Angel,” the speaker has a panic of nightmares. She’s grateful. The bad dreams wrought by the dangerous angel wake her “from this slumber of illusion.” In “Unlikely Valentine,” eleven moths “lay flat against my window pane.” Again, she is thankful: “Their delicate wings are shaped / like hearts, edged in a soft brown fringe.” In this poem, the moths represent the eleven hours on a clock face. The speaker is the twelfth hour: “they will not live the night, but now / they are lovely, unexpected, and so / still (not a single flutter from them).”


Night is a magic hour for Redmond, yet without any stars or comets or opacity. You go to bed on one side of it and something happens that changes the whole world by morning. “On the Outer Shores, I Find Them” originally appeared in the now deceased journal 5 AM. What she finds in the surf are stones, “Weather worn, ocean smooth. / They feel good to hold. Clean, real / and heavy. I fill my pockets, / sweatshirt pouch, even my hood / and leave the water the way / Virginia chose to enter, / pockets full of stones.” The speaker puts them in her garden, on her stoop, inside her house: “They look like ancient cairns / staking out property, / a symbol that says / this is mine.” Or perhaps, a symbol that says, this is me. Later, she brings a stone back from the Maine coast and puts it on her mantel. Night passes. “Next morning the wood was wet / and the stone discolored near the hairline crevice. / The Atlantic had seeped out overnight— / into my house while I slept.” Yes, if Redmond is the rock, the Atlantic is her grief seeping into her house overnight. That is the ocean effect, the grief effect.

The sympathy Redmond feels with a rock or a moth or a dangerous angel is both metaphysical and pragmatic. In “Running Away” she is five or six and “waiting for the bus,” and in “Quiz Tomorrow” she notices a group of children waiting for a bus like a group of herself in “Running Away” when she was that age: “Kids gather at the corner looking / like a herd of little humpbacks, until / a yellow bus swallows them whole.” While a stickler might have used the word “shoal” instead of herd, it’s clear that this little humpback poet wants to run away to the ocean.

“Quiz Tomorrow” is not without its waking image: “I wake to the dark / drum roll of October rain. And “Running Away” too involves sleep, this time the speaker’s mother wanting to take a nap in the morning. Lines such as “She could have lived without me” and “If I’d had my way, she’d have lost me for half a year” stand out for a kind of willful separation the speaker sometimes employs to escape an empathy that nearly drowns her. In “On the Way to Do an Errand” there’s another figure lying down, this time her father:
My father’s grave is close
enough to the road so
I wave when I drive by— 
He is lying down and
can’t see me, but I picture
him in his coffin 
wearing his good suit and glasses,
the change quiet in his pocket,
reading the paper. Sometimes 
I can hear the clink
of his spoon as he taps the rim of his cup
after he has swirled his milk and sugar. 
The paper might rustle.
He will clear his throat. Then
I imagine what he does not say.
One of the gifts The Ocean Effect offers readers is to show us how to believe in improbable circumstances long enough to find our middle—our sense of balance—in a reality which is impossible. This poem, like Szymborska’s “Brueghel’s Two Monkeys” in which clinking sounds come from a painting, blurs the line between art and life. It is not art which must enter us but we who must enter art and to eavesdrop on the unsaid conversations that make so much difference.

The title poem in this brief, but energetic collection, is a stunner. It is a drunk driving poem without any judgment apart from its intricate internal logic. “In this blue-shuttered season of winter,” it begins. The speaker has “fallen in with silence” like snowflakes fall. Surely, if there are shutters, there must be shudders, and a cat who “trembles a bit.” The cat “rests her head on my foot”—an image that reminds me of headstones and footstones—while “a vase hugs the remains of a tulip.” The speaker thinks of her students as she makes little piles of the dropped purple petals. And in a poem without any past tense yet with so much having happened already, Redmond recreates the terrible scene as if it’s one that won’t stop recurring:
A young girl crosses the street
in the evening darkness. She appeared
out of nowhere, the driver said—like a ghost.
Redmond jumps from the present to something even more present: “The empty desk sobers us. After / school, I rearrange the seating.” The reader is so aware of the speaker’s grief yet the grief doesn’t clobber us, and the grief doesn’t become anger as often happens, or vindictive in any way.

The poet’s hairline cracks are the ones that matter most, but no one should think for an instant that Redmond is incapable of an unbridled emotional flair. Her sexual themes in the latter part of the chapbook reveal an author perfectly comfortable writing From Here to Eternity moments of fantastically modulated desire. “Plenty,” “A Lesson in Geography,” and “Letter to M” reveal that pleasure, and pleasuring, are not without mystery either, and her poem “So Good” had me running for my snorkel and swimming fins.

Usually, someone who treads so evenly on rage, sex, impenetrable sadness, and loss does so because years of familiarity have made it possible to know well the path around tricky obstacles. Such poets know how to be edgy without actually risking their own illusions of themselves. Redmond is not that sort of nervous writer, nor is she jaded or just being comfortable in her own voice. It is she who has sinned the most, loved the most, learned the most, and drowned the most. It is she who is a liar and a thief. It is she who is blessed with “Tiny Afflictions” which remind us that we are alive.

The Ocean Effect, by Mary Ellen Redmond (Finishing Line Press, 2014, 26 pages, $14.00, ISBN: 978-1-62229-703-0)



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