Saturday, June 23, 2007

The Other Poetry of New England: Reading Nancy Lagomarsino

Mention New England poetry to a crowd, and the first name raised is Robert Frost; with luck, Emily Dickinson follows soon after. Though the poetry of the two could scarcely be more different in structure or matter, they are at least familiar. Frost in particular has come to represent the New England of marketing experts, rich with scenic vistas, pauses in or near the animals, and eccentric but interesting "characters" who live outside the downtowns. I'll set Dickinson aside for the moment, with her interior landscapes. But we'll come back to her.
Frost's narrative poetry is so much a part of the American fabric now, that Donald Hall, who also uses the mountains, barns, and regional dialects in some of his poems, has worn the label of being "today's Robert Frost" for decades. What the two men say and how they present it, again, are vastly different. But in a sense, if the building is red and made of slabs of wood and very tall, it gets called a barn. In the same way, the poetry of the Vermont and New Hampshire landscape is called Frostian, and its narrative and dialogue are as familiar as, say, the line "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood."
Nancy Lagomarsino was born in Montpelier, eventually earning an master's in fine arts degree in creative writing from Vermont College. Since 1974 she's lived in Hanover, New Hampshire. By most standards, then, she's a New England poet: Here she grew, and here she lives.
Any resemblance between Frost's poems and Lagomarsino's, though, is entirely coincidental (and perhaps imaginary). Instead, Lagomarsino spins the short, intense, immaculately crafted prose poems rooted in a cultivated ability to step back from a scene, envision it turned upside down, then deftly turn it inside out. She is the author of three books of prose poems, Sleep Handbook (Alice James Books, 1987), The Secretary Parables (Alice James Books, 1991), and Light from an Eclipse (White Pine Press, 2005). Light from an Eclipse is a memoir covering the years of her dad’s Alzheimer’s disease, and isn't dealt with here; let's stay with the two AJB collections.
SLEEP HANDBOOK, the earlier book, lays out three sections: Somniloquy, Domestic Bliss, and Mirror Image. The first plunges into the bizarre alternate reality of sleep and dreams. Have you soothed someone toward rest by talking gently of the Man in the Moon, looking down kindly? Taste Lagomarsino's "Moonstruck" instead:

A full moon shines on her as she prepares for sleep. Fearing lunacy, she stares back with outraged menace. From this distance the moon looks as strong and calm as a table, but there's no telling what turmoil might exist on the dark side where real life goes on.
The moon in fact feels uneasy. The side that is always day smiles like a jolly grocer ... out back, his old wife sorts baskets of melons, smashing rotten ones like so many heads.

I could stop there, actually: In one deft little poem, the salt of this poet's nimble tongue is already pinned onto the page. So it's a delight to discover that the rest of the collection continues to strike notes of both absurdity and threat, as well as loss. The second section of the volume, Domestic Bliss, conveys the mild lunacy of two people of opposite genders, freighted with social roles, daring to live together as spouses. In the third, Mirror Image, Lagomarsino climbs into her own reflection in varying lightings, locations, and seasons. Here is the poem "Mirror Image":

So far my reflection remains loyal to me, but with a stranger's loyalty, puzzling and undeserved. In mirrors over sinks or from the dark window of a bus moving at night, the person I know to be myself stares back. She doesn't mean anything by it -- in fact, she tries to look away. I love her. I don't blink.

Her second collection, THE SECRETARY PARABLES, is also laid out in three sections: Durations, The Secretary Parables, and Rescue. Here the prose poems reinforce each other, building toward surreal worldviews so that the collection has its own pulse and breath. Womanist frames are built more sturdily: "400 Yard Girls' Relay" ends, "Even now I think words are batons passed between men." "The Wedding" in its concluding twist asserts, "I'm still trying to understand what married love means, how we discard it temporarily, and how we get it back."
And in the final section, a deft exploration of writing weaves into a poem whose inner dream allows Lagomarino and the poet of Amherst, Mass., Emily Dickinson herself, to meet "alone at a table, my face and her skull."
For it is equally true that New England has bred many a surrealist poet, from Ashbery to James Tate to Charles Simic to Emily herself, and Dickinson, despite "her fragility, her many refusals" (Lagomarsino's words), insisted on the right to shake the snow globe and hold it upside down, or to take the framed photo and disassemble it, moving the pieces around like a puzzle with multiple unfinished solutions. In the same way, Lagomarsino presses the distilled form of the short prose poem into tilting, angling, and repositioning the images of girlhood, love, and entanglement.
My only quarrel with this second collection is in its finale, which I would have called for just a couple of pieces before the poet has. I would have treasured the ending of "The Provinces of Sleep" as the leap back from the page into unexpected realities. For here Lagomarsino writes, "This morning I held my breasts with relief. So much sorrow in one dream ... we find in sleep what we find in love."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this thoughtful review. Sleep Handbook is fantastic, and deserves wider readership. I'm looking forward to reading the other two books.

Among many beautiful lines in SH, one has always thrilled me especially:

Twilight clings to me like pollen.