JOHN BLOOMBERG-RISSMAN Reviews
“the mirror says” from Entrêpot by Mark McMorris
(Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, 2010)
“the mirror says”(a poem)The mirror says: a chalk house. The mirror says: leather box;a courtyard with moss. The air frantic with fire and booksso pages fall to the cistern. The mirror’s back has no silver.The book needs to begin, needs a rose, I said, a place to sitand study the tea that falls from the tea plant, the lightfalls steadily in the book, the leaves of light and of teain the mirror that is a book and a girl that reads looks upa name in the moss, a green name in a red house, looks upat hawk, at hawk-writing, and sees a girl in a red windowa green finger to her lips. I know her from the photo-pictorial in the leather box. But the hawk and his namethe girl and the book; so the leaf and silver cloud, so backand beguile; so sweater with moth-holes and scriptsfrom the Caliphate of WAS: they went into the bookthat went into the flames. The girl and her ashes and hawkare on a path to the courtyard; say then that the bookwas banned and the tea was tea-ish, the mirror a glass.What girl could read such a fire, what leaf would lightbegin to write upon blue, or on moss, at stroke of noon?[Letters to Michael: Dear Michael (1)]
I read this poem; and then I have read this poem. Meaning I read it twice as I read it once: first word by word, line by line, and at the same time the words and lines accrue (what?), as they (what’s the word?) “mess with” the words and lines I’ve already read, the impressions and narratives and affects that have already begun to grow in me, til I reach the last word in the last line. So each reading is at least two readings … during the first I am aware of the need for a Keatsian “negative capability”, which I associate with Derridean differance … nevertheless the first reading is perhaps the more affective one, no matter how much I am aware that the second reading will effect my future relation to the affects that have already come …
In this poem, the dual and parallel reading effect is emphasized, as semi-cryptic imagery tends to repeat-without-precise-repetition, as a music perhaps, or, better, musically, where a series of notes “never steps into the same river twice”, tho it never doesn’t quite, either.
Plus, this is all complicated by the fact (important to me, at least) that McMorris is Jamaican, and I need to resist the tendency to exoticize the imagery, to create a “false (orientalized) Jamaica, to resist turning, e.g., “the courtyard with moss” into Pirates of the Caribbean. While at the same time not denying the rootedness of the experience. In other words, I have to figure out whether McMorris’s Jamaican-ness comes into play here, and what that might mean. That is perhaps impossible to get right.
“The mirror says: a chalk house”: I do not know what that means. How could a mirror say a chalk house? The mirror could be a blackboard, and a house could be chalked on it. That “could be” is very tentative …
That word “says” is also very curious …
“The mirror says: leather box; / a courtyard with moss.” The mirror doesn’t seem to be a blackboard, since one could use a blackboard to portray a box, but not (really) the material of which it is made. Perhaps the mirror is … memory? I seem to be needing to figure out what the mirror is. Memory seems to hold up (I’m still very tentative) when I get to the “courtyard with moss”. I note that it’s “a” courtyard. Can’t tell yet whether this is a specific “a”, a particular courtyard.
[Note: I don’t yet know what “kind” of poem I’m reading, whether it’s one to be taken literally or in a more abstract (not the word) manner … by “abstract” I’m thinking language-y, or surrealistic or … not to be taken entirely … literally. But, til I know, I will assume that the words mean what they seem to mean]
“The air frantic with fire and books / so pages fall to the cistern.” We seem to be in a narrative now. Perhaps the mirror is “saying” a story. A house. A leather box. A courtyard. A fire. A library (?) being burnt. Being burnt? Simply burning? I don’t know where the agency is yet …
“The mirror’s back has no silver.” OK. No reflection then. I happen to know (all readers of Derrida happen to know) that the silver back of the mirror is called the tain. Leaving aside Derrida, except to thank him for the vocabulary lesson, a mirror with no tain can’t reflect. So, following the “memory” strand, is this a way of saying that memory does not provide accurate access to whatever it is that happened in that courtyard?
I’m going sentence by sentence. The next one throws everything so far into question:
“The book needs to begin, needs a rose, I said, a place to sit / and study the tea that falls from the tea plant, the light / falls steadily in the book, the leaves of light and of tea / in the mirror that is a book and a girl that reads looks up / a name in the moss, a green name in a red house, looks up / at hawk, at hawk-writing, and sees a girl in a red window / a green finger to her lips.”
Now I’m in a different music, and forced into a somewhat different way of considering how this poem is going about its work. “The book needs to begin …” OK. Testimony? Regardless of the inability of the mirror, which can still stand in for memory, testimony needs to base itself on something. But on a rose? I now know that I am not to read quite so literally. It might be possible to find a reason to suggest a rose as “ground”, but the poem is picking up speed, the sentence is lengthening, lengthening, so I will simply accept a rose (and glancingly consider that roses and time are often linked in poetry (“gather ye rosebuds while ye may”, and just as glancingly let that fly by), because the rose is now a place to sit (yes, still possibly an anchor for memory), but now the narrator has injected himself into the poem (“I said”), and for the life of me what comes to mind is Olson/Maximus, but now we’re on to the tea leaves falling from the tea plant, and I have no idea what that signifies, except perhaps a literal tea plant (tho one does read tea leaves??), and now the light is falling on the book, and there are leaves of light and tea and the mirror is the book and we are really picking up speed. And now there is a girl reading (the book in question? another book?) and she is looking up a name in the moss (we are back in the courtyard?), a green name (because the moss is green?) in a red house (because the house is red? because the house is on fire?), she looks up a hawk (italicized, tho I don’t know why (which is not a criticism, just a mystery)), at hawk-writing (in the book of the sky? in the book of the book (either the narrator’s or hers, which may be one and the same?), “and sees a girl in a red window / a green finger to her lips.” I don’t know why the finger is green, unless it’s in association with the green name in the moss, but a finger to the lips usually means “shhhh”, so perhaps we are in the midst of telling a story that cant/shouldn’t be told?
Though I am obviously trying to piece a narrative, I am not at all frustrated, because the music of the repetitions/variations, the speed of the lengthening sentences, and the power of whatever’s unspoken (shhhh) is carrying me along … not to mention the wonderful mystery of it all.
“I know her from the photo- / pictorial in the leather box.” OK. OK. OK. Firmish ground for a minute. A shortish sentence in which to rest after the last sentence’s rush. So the box is real. And it contains a “photo-pictorial”. I don’t know exactly what that is, but I assume it’s a either a magazine article, or a collection of somehow-related photographs. Anyhow assuming the reality of the box and the photos, the girl above, and all else, is real, too, tho I don’t quite know what it all amounts to.
“But the hawk and his name / the girl and the book; so the leaf and silver cloud, so back / and beguile; so sweater with moth-holes and scripts / from the Caliphate of WAS: they went into the book / that went into the flames.” Family history? Uncontainable? Too great in affect? Or is the record in the leather box too fragmentary? Or, perhaps, the unreflecting mirror still refuses to reflect? Or, perhaps, more simply, this poem is mourning a loss (and somehow I think the “a” I’ve just inscribed is a multiplicity of sorts?
I love that phrase, “the Caliphate of WAS”.
“The girl and her ashes and hawk / are on a path to the courtyard; say then that the book / was banned and the tea was tea-ish, the mirror a glass.”
Now I begin to think that the “I” of the poem is in a courtyard, with the leather box, contemplating the photo-pictorial, and he (I think of the I as a he because McMorris is a he, but perhaps because of the use of the word “girl” …) is bringing the past to imagination, and his head is spinning a bit at the impossibility of (at the desirability of?) “pinning down” the past. “Say then that the book was banned …” by whom? Or by what? Perhaps we are in Blanchot country here, in the sense that the only books worth writing are those that can never be written, that the book has been banned by the process of writing it, that it is only a simulacrum of itself … thus the tea isn’t tea, only tea-ish, the mirror not a mirror (tho I do begin to wonder again, my head begins to spin, at the mention of the glass (what glass?) …).
“What girl could read such a fire, what leaf would light / begin to write upon blue, or on moss, at stroke of noon?”
This sentence seems to again an admission of the impossibility of his task, of the task (the obligation) of writing, of memory … I am struck by the “stroke of noon.” It recalls the mirror sans tain, the mirror that cannot reflect, in that at noon there are no shadow (shadows being construed here, for reasons I will have difficulty explaining, as text).
Yet, this is what poetry is, right? I mean, even though it’s impossible, Blanchot did end up writing quite a bit.
[Editor’s Note: This is the first of 50 reviews written, mas o menos, in 50 days. While each engagement can be read on a stand-alone basis, there’s a layer of watching the critic’s subjectivity arise in a fulsome manner if the reviews are read one after another. So if you have insomnia and/or are curious about this layer, I suggest you read the 50 reviews right after each other and, to facilitate this type of reading, I will put at the bottom of each review a “NEXT” button that will take you to the next review. To wit: NEXT. And an Afterword on John's reading process is also available HERE!]
John Bloomberg-Rissman is somewhere towards middle of In the House of the Hangman, the third section of his maybe life project called Zeitgeist Spam (picture Hannah Hoch painting over the Sistine Chapel) The first two volumes have been published: No Sounds of My Own Making, and Flux, Clot & Froth. In addition to his Zeitgeist Spam project, he has edited or co-edited two anthologies, 1000 Views of 'Girl Singing' and The Chained Hay(na)ku Project, and is at work on a third, which he is editing with Jerome Rothenberg. He is also deep into two important collaborations, one with Richard Lopez, one with Anne Gorrick. By important he means "important to him". Anyone else want to collaborate? He blogs at Zeitgeist Spam.