More Anon: Selected Poems by Maureen N. McLane (Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2021)
Blood on the Fog by Tongo Eisen-Martin (City Lights Publishers 2021)
The Past by Wendy Xu (Wesleyan University Press 2021)
Pilgrim Bell: Poems by Kaveh Akbar (Graywolf Press 2021)
In early 1954, approaching his seventy-fifth birthday, Wallace Stevens faced a dilemma unique to monumental poets nearing the final stage of their careers: Should he publish a selected poems or a collected? Nothing but the hits, or everything, including all the misses? Writing to an academic acquaintance, he weighed his options: “They are different in the sense that people read selected poems but don’t buy them. On the other hand, they buy collected poems but don’t read them.” It’s a fantastic little quip, a perfectly knotted rhetorical bow—but in Stevens’s case, it isn’t remotely true. When his Collected Poems was published that fall, it garnered him plenty of new readers and considerable sales, along with the Pulitzer Prize, his second National Book Award, and a celebratory birthday lunch at New York’s Harmonie Club, hosted by his publisher. (In the years since Stevens’s death, there have been several Selected Poems, any of which I recommend reading, buying, or both, even though none of them led to lunches of much literary-historical distinction.)
Maureen N. McLane, the author of five collections and now her first selected poems, More Anon, has her own fantastic witticism about reprinting poems. It appears in her unsummarizable poetry-meets-prose-meets-everything-in-between memoir My Poets (2012), in an essay titled “My H. D.,” in a paragraph collaging appraisal and crafty quotation:
It is no dispraise to be a poet best served by an anthology, a rigorously pruned selected—no dispraise particularly for this poet, who knew very well that “anthology” comes from the Greek: a gathering of flowers. “Little, but all roses.”
True enough for H. D.; true enough for any number of poets whose work looks best when handpicked and arranged into a modest bouquet. But McLane, like Stevens, lucked out: her own gathering of flowers easily exceeds the rosy standards she set for H. D. Reprinting around a third of her previously published poetry, More Anon may be “rigorously pruned,” but its contents are so various, no mere bouquet but a botanical garden, that you might reasonably wonder how it all came from just one poet.
The final poem in More Anon, “envoi: eclipse,” reads in full: “I don’t trust myself / not to look.” From first page to last, More Anon presents McLane as a lowercase-e experimentalist, taking a methodical “look” at the marvelous; each new poem is an occasion to attempt something ever so slightly unprecedented, learn from the results, then promptly move on. Our ready-made phrase for dabbling among styles and stances, especially for young poets, is “finding one’s voice.” Counterintuitively, McLane found her first voices by throwing them every which way. The “envoi” to her debut, Same Life (2008), sounds like a post-breakup Chaucer, taking it hard, or a punkish Dickinson, promising mind-blowing sublimities: “Go litel myn book / and blow her head off.” That first book also includes a catechism, Sapphic love poems, a 118-line verse-essay on Susan Sontag, and episodes in the serial biography of a poet-scholar, Mz N. (That code name deserves an explanatory essay of its own: “Mz N” could be an alter ego for McLane—whose initials are two Ms and one N—or a glitchy abbreviation for an existentially “missing” person.) What all these one-off exercises had in common was their origin point: wonder. Sometimes it spilled from her opening lines (“Terrible things are happening / in Russian novels!”), and sometimes it came slowly to simmer:
Sometimes we arrange to meet
and after some wine they remember
and blush and wonder
and ask if I too wonder.
McLane embodied her wonder in a springy free-verse line, extendable and retractable as a lecturer’s pointer, and in her worldly palate for vocabularies, taking equal delight in the scientific, the mystical, and the snottily demotic: “Research has given us hope that all / Shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well / Till the moment it’s not. It’s not.” And she gravitated early to the sequence, poetry’s closest approximation of a controlled experiment. Most poets never write one good triolet, that refrain-driven medieval form. For her second book, World Enough (2010), McLane wrote twenty-three of the tuneful gizmos, each one isolating a nagging feeling and playing it on loop:
Time to admit
Has a logic to it.
Time to admit
Some days you’d quit
The species and flee.
Time to admit
As McLane’s stylistic freewheeling settled down, so did her loafing, inviting speakers. In This Blue (2014), she fashioned herself into a contemporary pastoralist, an occupation our warming century has refused to make easy. Her titles alone pull pranks on the tradition: “Summer Beer with Endangered Glacier” (a life of leisure in an age of anxiety), “OK Fern” (communing with nature via text message), “Enough with the Swan Song” (no more endings!). McLane—poet by night, professor of Romantic poetry by day—can wear her learning lightly, but she also savors the opposite: dressing up in layers of parroted pretension, allowing them to clash hilariously:
my airconditioned ken.
My offshore multinational’s
humming more power
than the biggest powerstation in Hoboken.
No matter how daffily contemporary McLane sounds, the Romantic in her is always singing. Here she scores a duet between shushing sh sounds nestled mid-word (“airconditioned,” “offshore,” “multinational,” “powerstation”), and mechanically “humming” ms and ns—until that pratfall of an end rhyme, “ken” and “Hoboken.” Had he ever traveled to New Jersey, Lord Byron would have loved it.
After a decade and change of writing quasi-autobiographical poems about a speaker you might plausibly call “Maureen N. McLane”—who exists only in poems, but who, just like Maureen N. McLane the human, loves Wordsworth and loves rolling her eyes at Wordsworth, can theorize lackadaisically and cuss rhapsodically—McLane hit a fork in the representational road. One path was not to identify with that fictive persona: to narrate one’s written-down life in the third person, standing aside, at a spectatorial remove. An alternate path was to embrace that fictive persona wholly: to see the apparitional person summoned on the page as somehow related to the real-life you, and somehow equally related to all your favorite poetic speakers from the tradition, from Sappho to Shelley to now. A scenic jog down the former path led McLane to write Mz N: the serial (2016), whose title page advertises “A Poem-in-Episodes // (not/a novel) / (not/a memoir) / (not/a lyric).” A book-length expansion of her earliest Mz N episodes, the serial narrates—to quote Wordsworth, roll your eyes if you have to—the “growth of a poet’s mind,” at a fast-forwarded clip and in fleet-footed free verse:
Mz N was a catastrophist
which was in her view
the highest realism
This is not the time
to retail the horrors
and pleasures of suburbia
She took the alternate path in her latest collection, Some Say (2017). The book’s title poem lovingly spoofs a rhetorical structure found throughout classical lyric—some say this, some others say that—and its most impassioned instance, Sappho’s fragment 16:
Some say a host
of horsemen, a horizon
of ships under sail
is most beautiful &
some say a mountain
embraced by the clouds &
some say the badass
in the club are most
beautiful and some say
the truth is most
beautiful dutifully singing
what beauty might
sound under stars
of a day.
Amid the discursive fray, McLane pipes up: “I say / what they say / is sometimes / what I say.” Weeks after first reading McLane’s Selected, I found myself reciting these tongue-twisting lines: they held a clue, it seemed, about where her career has temporarily perched with More Anon, and why she titled the book More Anon at all. In its mock-archaic, squarely professorial way, McLane’s title phrase means “more soon,” but she has also supplied more “anon.”—more anonymous wisdom and chitchat in the mode of Sappho’s unidentified “some,” more contributions to the millennia-long public domain that is poetic history. Unless the title is far less convoluted than that. More anon, more anon. If you repeat those phonemes to yourself often enough, compulsively, woozily, twanging a vowel here, dropping a consonant there, I can attest that eventually a familiar name will emerge from all your jibber-jabbering. It’s Maureen, moron.
I know the best poetry reading I’ve ever attended was given by Tongo Eisen-Martin, but in the moment, I couldn’t have told you what he was reading from. His memory? The backs of his eyelids? The podium before him, at which he stared for minutes straight, undeviating, while reciting? The floor, the ceiling, the back of the room, all of which he began instinctively scanning, as though keeping watch of a traffic-heavy intersection? If you wandered in late or peeked in mid-reading, you might not have recognized Eisen-Martin’s breakneck speech as poetry at all. Standing at the microphone, with no book or notes in hand, he never introduced any poem by name, or indicated when it ended; he abstained from the pre-poem chitchat now all but mandatory at poetry readings; he made no mention of his work as an educator and organizer against mass incarceration and the overpolicing of Black people and their neighborhoods. Instead, he talked. Talked, at first, from what sounded like experience, until some new persona or personality butted in, then another, then a dozen more. Before long he was acting as his city’s self-appointed chorus, a jukebox of calls and responses, equal parts street preacher and peanut gallery snickering behind him. In his voice, a swarm of startling pronouncements vied for attention, ranging from wounded self-portraiture—“You can tell by my tires that not everybody who’s driven with me is still alive”—to gnomic wisecracking: “‘I am not an I. / I am a black commons.’” At times, his lines came out in murmurings, as low-key talk, nothing special; at other times, the voices seemed to surprise Eisen-Martin himself, who would overhear his own sentences and, as involuntary punctuation, give a genuine laugh. “Today I watched capitalism walk on water,” he finally announced, bobbing emphatically with every stress. “And people play dead. / So that they could be part of a miracle.” He took a beat, started chuckling to himself, and walked away from the microphone—all done. He spoke, without interruption, for just over thirty minutes, and he never even told us his name.
When I turned from Eisen-Martin’s inimitable performance to his two collections someone’s dead already (2015) and Heaven Is All Goodbyes (2017), the magic wasn’t lost. But it did change shape. If his readings recall the torrential monologues of Bob Kaufman and Gil Scott-Heron—or else pushed past language entirely, aspiring toward the condition of a virtuosic jazz solo—on the page his poems resemble Langston Hughes’s and Gwendolyn Brooks’s densely populated sequences, which can draw a neighborhood’s various voices into close, clamorous quarters. Eisen-Martin spatializes his speakers across every reach of his books’ squarish pages, zigzagging between margins; some lines are assigned to discernible personae, while others are stranded in disembodied anonymity. When Eisen-Martin, standing before you, reads aloud a sentence like “somewhere in america / the prison bus is running on time,” he makes it sound like sore truth, learned the hard way, traumatizingly ingrained. But free-floating on the page, with no sign of who’s speaking or listening, the same sentence more closely resembles an incontrovertible law of physics. American prison buses “run on time” the way cars run on fuel: their engines guzzle jail time, prison terms, and a national history of bondage and incarceration, centuries in the making.
The nightmarish title of Eisen-Martin’s new book, Blood on the Fog, arrives at the end of a hallucinatory soliloquy, “The Possibility of Being One Person”:
I haven’t been eating, momma.
I’ve been in a trance.
I haven’t been sleeping.
I’ve been washing my hands off of the Port of Charleston.
There is blood on the fog.
Dripping in midair, that blood descends from a long line of literary gruesomeness, reaching back to Lady Macbeth’s “damned spot,” a stain of ineradicable guilt, and to Old Testament plagues. To Eisen-Martin, that dispirited forecast also seems like a fact of life in San Francisco, where he was born and now lives. (He recently became its eighth Poet Laureate.) Fog, of course, is another famous San Franciscan. The blood of the city’s Black residents—spilled by state and corporatized violence, so omnipresent as to be aerosolized in the air—increasingly reminds Eisen-Martin of something like weather: an untraceable system, happening everywhere, out of any individual’s control. In that mercilessly churning climate, “being one person” is never a guarantee, only ever a possibility, alongside dying early, suffering inhumane treatment, or living life posthumously. “a mumbler with a gun,” one of Eisen-Martin’s speakers styles himself, but not for long:
I am the worst
of your weapons, Lord
Won’t you put
a space heater
in my grave
That unforthcoming Lord is the book’s most frequent addressee; other poems, finding no living friends in earshot, speak on a one-name basis of Malcolm (X), Martin (Luther King Jr.), and Monk (comma, Thelonious). With uncharacteristic consistency, Eisen-Martin’s new poems find themselves crying out to divinities, phantoms, anyone who might alleviate his bewilderment or dread: “do you ever spiral, Lord? / has the gang-age betrayed us? / be patient with my poems, Lord / . . . Lord, is that my revolver in your hand?”
Still, Eisen-Martin’s free-associative temperament and revolutionary politics come through most brilliantly in his sprawling, polyphonic assemblages, which grant equal weight to each line, each full-throated sentiment, each freestanding speaker. Take “I Do Not Know the Spelling of Money,” which Eisen-Martin has described as “a collage of analysis of a society whose culture and social processes flow from its military machines. The various narrators of the poem have come to terms with the reality that the principal mode of social relations in this society is that of organized and monopolized violence.” As a two-sentence synopsis of four unsummarizably intricate pages, this couldn’t be bettered, but it still can’t prepare you for the treacherous atmosphere Eisen-Martin conjures up, where killing and getting killed are as ubiquitous as national pastimes. “I go to the railroad tracks / And follow them to the station of my enemies,” professes his first speaker, traversing the Bay Area like a spaghetti-western antihero. Another speaker registers—with horror? pride? apathy?—“My new existence as living graffiti,” a roving blot on a whitewashed city. In the deadpan surrealism of an Eisen-Martin poem, even objects, spontaneously animated and swelling with animus, have something to say: “The new bullets pray over blankets made from old bullets.”