Review by Erik Muller
2013, 92pp., $18
Elizabeth McLagan, a determined poet in an indeterminate world, sets up early the terms of her collection, In the White Room. The poet takes the preface page to offer definitions of “room,” some restraining, some liberating, some opening out to synonyms one would not necessarily associate with the word. So here’s focus, yet also leeway and latitude and play. The other key term of the title, “white,” occurs throughout with a variety of applications—of course, with snow and the Far North, yet also with “the moon’s tombstone” and “the lung’s white tree.” So McLagan is our determined guide to an undetermined destination, along an undetermined route.
Imagery is one of this poetry’s chief excitements because often the images do not serve realistic depiction or clearly progressive narrative. Not that McLagan cannot sketch deftly and exactly: “That park where twig light//tattooed her arm” (“Slow Lens Narrowing”). The poet presents images that often go beyond realism, as illustrated in “Midnight under the Mouths of Chimneys,” a night strangely animating household objects: “Be kind/bent tongue of a blue shoe,” the crockery “all white of the eye, no lips.” Energy in such imagery enacts the entire book’s straining among competing definitions of “room” and among the contrasting values assigned to white. There is no settling down here.
In a similar spirit, the sequencing in these poems is also shifting, thus demanding and involving as well. Some poems are built with sequences of imagery that create atmosphere, a peculiar room or landscape. Some begin with a question to be explored. Commonly, the imagery is disjunctive, expansive, widely-referencing, as seen in the closing of “Visitation in the Form of a Blue Feather”:
One rung of a ladder we could climb
against the long-hipped swells of heat’s
invisible body. Hollow and stinging,
a plumage of knives. We’d preen
and flare. We’d vex the evening.
Just now the feather’s lonely kisses
meet the ground. While we’re elsewhere
launching sadness, it rests in the curve
of itself, beckoning madly.
What a rich collocation! Ladders, heat, knives, kisses. Especially intriguing is the relationship between the feather and the speaker who begins this meditation by asking:
What does it mean, this arrow of flesh,
a bright trim dropped from sky—
if we fail to touch, it’s failure
prickly with barbs . . .
Who might fail to touch, speaker and feather, speaker and the other(s) of this “we”? And possibly without touching the feather, the speaker and companion(s) move off, missing out on the feather’s gift. So not only the attempts at catching the feather in an image seem inconclusive, the dramatic scene finally shows even the speaker not attentive to this visitation.
In poems about painters, imagined paintings, and, of course, rooms, McLagan reveals some of her own poetics. In “Kandinsky’s Hunger,” after a tour de force describing one of his paintings, the painter’s voice or the poet’s concludes, “Let everything enter. Shut nothing out.” A nocturnal speaker of “Some Life” tells how “The bone moon raises its hackles./Everywhere a white seething.” While form in “Still Life with Oranges” can appear as “imposition and restraint,” such limits are finally pushed against: “from form and its blackened edge, the heart/clamors from a body that can only partly contain it.”
The body itself a room, the room full of words, uncertainty about whether to stay outside or go in—what does it mean? what could happen? So, the poet of In the White Room is both sophisticated about poetry and candid about her perplexities. This mesh of knowing and not knowing does not freeze up the work. Instead, it propels these poems into varied excitements–a wide, yet precarious, freedom of image, sequence, thought, and emotion.
A note on copyediting: I am unsure if wider spaces between some words are exceptions made by the poet or lapses of the copyeditor. The norm in these poems seems to be conventional spacing between words, so this wider spacing is noisy. And this one is at the feet of the copyeditor: In citations for gratitude, the names of both Paulann Petersen and Stanley Plumly are misspelled.
Erik Muller is a poet and editor living in Eugene.