Monday, January 9, 2012

Review: Marilyn McCabe's Rugged Means of Grace

Rugged Means of Grace by Marilyn McCabe
Finishing Line Press
, 2011
Reviewed by Janelle Elyse Kihlstrom

Early on in her powerful first solo collection, Rugged Means of Grace, Marilyn McCabe establishes a direct voice with the capacity to address the unthinkable instant of sudden loss.

She writes in "If Beauty Is Just the Beginning of Terror":

where we stop short and are gone:
like the way the wind came
one day after Dave died
in a flurry of bike and deer
and clouds built themselves
an empire and the trees
bowed down and roofs fled,
barns collapsed,
sewers spewed
and all was gray and green,
then gone too blue
and the ghastly sun
like an operating room lamp
on the glowing insides of the patient,
the place where no light should go.

Quiet.  Take the soft heart
from the body streaked
blue, white, red,
cup it like a bird in your mortal hand,
but it can't fly, as time does.

Time has the power to move on, the speaker implies, but the heart is in time's thrall and must wait.

At the close of "Marie," about Curie's loss of her husband Pierre, the narrator states:  "I am held by this luckless substance./ The luminosity cannot be seen./ It is the end of everything./ Tell me how to live."

In the next poem, dedicated to Mme. Curie, the scientist is asked, "What drives you, woman, to melt/ and weigh, melt and weigh,/ distill yourself (a glorious poison)?"

The poem that follows, "Burning Bush," begins by addressing the mystery of life on earth, once the exclusive realm of religion:  "The Genome Project guy thinks God works/ in deoxyribonucleic acid/ His wonder to behold."

It closes, "How we parse this profane world,/ find smaller, smaller/ sacraments,// holy fire,/ spiral of smoke/ from which we can't avert our eyes."

"Holyland" continues the contemporary speaker's search for meaning in a landscape which carries the heavy weight of history but is subject also to the indifference of a chaotic universe:

Be lost.  No place more perfect:  dry sea of tides,
vortices and waver of the ancient dead
home here on holiday, old rivalries and piques.
Stars on which to navigate shift against the bloody night,
some shooting swift as shots.  Everywhere I see
myself and its opposite in mirrors made bleary
with time and a strange silvering that comes of air
and water's persistent search.

The varied natural subjects of "Bestiary" allow the more playful side of McCabe's voice to emerge.  "Lettuce" laments:  "Such sturdy substance/ at my source, one seed,/ but risen rosette, now/ this labile, sea-/ like self, I'm silly,/ frilled as a lizard.  Unsolid,/ I'm salad.  What the hell's/ happened to my head?"

In this brief collection, pilgrimages for meaning are interspersed with more mundane anecdotes, like a trip to the dentist's office in "Open Wide."

Throughout, McCabe relates in direct and detailed, sensory-rich language a succession of earthbound, sensual encounters with the profound.  The title comes from the closing line of "Lac du Saint Sacrament":  "... This/ is my body, visible sign of invisible/ reality.  You dissolve me:/ earth's impulsive intentions,/ its inadvertent and slow evolving violence./ You are a rugged means of grace.

Each encounter permits a little more illumination, even if no conclusions are reached beyond recognition of the artist-seeker's role of transient observer.  "Signs of Passerines" begins:  "I try not to think.  All the things I've left behind./ My name on a white page, clack of my words clattering down./ The window:  taking it apart.  The center."

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