JOHN BLOOMBERG-RISSMAN Reviews
“Explanation” in Driving Montana Alone by Katie Phillips
(Slapering Hol Press, Sleepy Hollow, NY, 2010)
Your mother loved spring,
but you were conceived in winter,
born in fall, and she could not
keep autumn out of you.
Your melancholy confused her,
who waited all year for verdancy
and lilacs. “Why can’t you make
nice things?” she asked when you
gave her the scowling jack-o-lantern.
Your first cries split cold air,
your first breath tasted of frost.
Through your new eyes, even
your mother’s face was shaped
like a leaf, falling toward you.
I chose to read this poem because, after reading the title, I hoped it would explain things (what things? I don’t know; something about this poet). Seriously. Well, half-seriously. I was half right.
There is one major mystery in this poem. Who is the “you”? At first I read it as referring to the poet herself, then I read it as referring to a lover, then I read it as referring to the poet’s child, then I read it as again “autobiographical” (scare quotes because a poem is always and never autobiographical). Is it important to know? Yes and no. No and yes. But a question I can’t avoid is: about whom would the author / narrator have this information. I think the only conceivable answer is: herself.
That’s the way I read this poem, so, rightly or wrongly, that’s the way I read this poem. I could provide another reading by assuming that it’s a description of a lover, or a child, but I just don’t think it is. Tho it could be. But so be it.
What does “Explanation” explain, then? The author / narrator’s relationship with her mother, yes, but probably (certainly) more importantly, her lifelong tendency towards a less-than-sunny disposition, towards seeing impending endings rather than joyous new beginnings.
“Explanation” uses a seasonal metaphor to get at this (put crudely, spring = happiness and life, autumn = unhappiness and dying). One of my conclusions is that because this poem is so blatantly and entirely mono-metaphorical, it doesn’t explain anything, really. And the author / narrator is well aware of this. The mystery of her disposition is just that: a mystery.
I think it’s interesting that the father doesn’t enter into the equation. (Which may explain why, in a number of the other poems in this book, the author / narrator is waiting, or in the presence of the absence of the other, etc …)
“Your mother loved spring, / but you were conceived in winter, / born in fall, and she could not / keep autumn out of you.” Two things to note: first, that it’s not the moment of conception that is important here, but the moment of birth. I wonder if the disappearance of the father occurred between conception and birth, and whether that’s why the mother couldn’t keep autumn out of her (yet another essentialization!). I have no grounds from the poem itself to assume this (in fact I may have grounds for NOT assuming it), so I let it just cross my mind. The important thing is that the mother is helpless to change the child’s natal horoscope.
We don’t know yet, what keeping the autumn out might mean. We learn in stanza two: melancholia. “Your melancholy confused her, / who waited all year for verdancy / and lilacs. “Why can’t you make / nice things?” she asked when you /
gave her the scowling jack-o-lantern.” It’s “Why can’t you make / nice things?”, by the way, that is my first push towards reading this autobiographically. It sounds like the complaint heard by many a poet who is attempting to remain true to the way “it is” for them. In which case, the jack-o-lantern is not just a jack-o-lantern, it’s the poet’s oeuvre.
I don’t think that this is a poem about conflict between mother and daughter. I think the author / narrator, by contrasting herself to her mother, sees her own uniqueness accented. No, she’s not just like everyone else. She’s not even like the person she’s most closely related to.
“Your first cries split cold air, / your first breath tasted of frost.” Somehow, cold air and frost have determined her personality. It’s her world itself that’s cold, frosty, autumnal. The metaphor is more complicated than originally assumed. Her disposition is determined by what she experiences. By extrapolation, a middle-class American woman sees through middle-class American women’s eyes (I’m not suggesting she’s middle-class, I’m just giving an example. Another example would be that, were she a poor Iraqi woman born under Saddam, that would go a long way to determine her world-view. As would her birth in China, or Sudan, etc etc). We are to some extent or other (not worth arguing over here) creatures of our time and place and history:
“Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.” ― Karl Marx, 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.
Yes, sexist language, but this poem is not really making a gendered argument; at least there are no men, there is no patriarchy overtly mentioned. I’m not trying to make “Explanation” political, but it is certainly possible to see the metaphor extending to say something like, “Mom, it was different when you grew up”, as well as what it says more directly.
Besides, the personal is political and vice versa. Which is just an excuse for me, who tends to see the political in everything …
Just consider this another something that crosses my mind …
The poem ends with the following lines: “Through your new eyes, even / your mother’s face was shaped / like a leaf, falling toward you.” The poet / narrator sees herself as oriented towards loss and ending from the very start. Even her first memories of her mother bending over her are laden with impending doom.
As I’ve noted above, the metaphor here doesn’t really explain anything. It just allows the author / narrator to see and show herself. It’s a way of saying, this is who I am. “Explanation” doesn’t explain anything. It just describes. Don’t undervalue that “just”.
[Editor’s Note: This is one 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.