On Maureen McLane

Ange Mlinko

The argument laid out in the first four poems of Some Say, Maureen McLane’s newest collection (Farrar, Straus, £20), encapsulates the one she makes in the whole book, and in all her poetry. The collection starts out in medias res, with the first poem’s title, ‘As I was saying, the sun’, taking a running leap into the poem itself: ‘& the moon and all the stars/you can name/are fantastic!’ This sets a tone of exuberance which is immediately deflated: ‘It’s not cool/to be enthusiastic.’ Two pages later, in ‘OK Let’s Go’, she writes about renewal: ‘Let’s go to Dawn School/and learn again to begin/oh something different/from repetition.’ In the third poem, ‘Mesh’, she offers a vision:

I saw the world
dissolve in waves
the trees as one
with the sun
and their shadows.

Then she asks her imagined detractors: ‘Why should I feel bad/about beauty?’ Finally, in ‘Some Say’, she gives a tour de force rendition of Sappho 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
booty-shakin’ shorties
in the club are most
beautiful and some say …
… I say
what they say
is sometimes
what I say
Her legs long
and bare shining
on the bed the hair
the small tuft
the brown languor …

McLane’s argument is that, from the sun and stars to the female form, beauty is a quality that endures beyond the changing fashions of public discourse – even in times of crisis. McLane, a Romantic poet out of time, is on the one hand modernising Sappho (‘badass/booty-shakin’ shorties’) and on the other dismantling her rhetorical trope, which contrasts what ‘some’ think to be the most beautiful thing on the black earth with what ‘others’ believe, and then breaks away with a declarative, freestanding ‘I’. (‘Some say cavalry … others say fleets … I say whatever one loves.’) For McLane, shoring up the lyric ‘I’ isn’t the point: ‘I say/what they say/is sometimes what I say.’ Where Sappho’s poem ends on a note of tenderly fervent defiance, McLane ends on a fond, wisecracking one:

Some say calamity
and some catastrophe
is beautiful       Some say
porn             Some jolie laide
Some say beauty
is hanging there at a dank bar
with pretty and sublime
those sad bitches left behind
by the horsemen

Some Say is McLane’s fifth book of poetry in nine years. When I read her first, Same Life (2008), I thought she was one of the cool ones, writing in a breezy way about Sontag and poststructuralism, game for anything, Whitmanically omnisexual. Maybe I misread her: she has seemed, ever since, a non-postmodern literary geek like me, impassioned and uncool despite (or because of?) a tonal register somewhere between teenage fangirl and Wordsworth professor. (She is in fact a professor of English at New York University, author of two academic books, and co-editor of The Cambridge Companion to British Romantic Poetry.) Her last book, Mz N: The Serial (A Poem in Episodes) (2016), was conceived as a Bildungsroman in free verse. Her 2012 non-fiction book, My Poets, was another Bildungsroman disguised as a book of determinedly spontaneous literary criticism. In it are essays of varying degrees of rigour: a serious discussion of Marianne Moore, an illuminating passage on Wordsworth’s ‘thinking hart’, a goofy anecdote about Wallace Stevens. (Harvard asked her for a yearbook quote; she gave them ‘Let be be finale of seem.’ ‘Well what is that supposed to mean?’ they asked. ‘I didn’t know and I don’t and I was ecstatic’ – fin.)

One of the best things about My Poets was the chapter on impasses – on ‘not getting it’ – in which she reproduces her college notes on ‘The Day Lady Died’, Frank O’Hara’s I-do-this-I-do-that poem. She laid bare the earnestness of the A-student – in primly rounded handwriting – with her crypto New Critical fatuities, noting, for example, the ‘lack of emotion in urban surroundings’. ‘For it would seem I did not get O’Hara at all. There is a profoundly idiot-savant quality to my marginalia, proving (yet again) the dangers of knowing a little.’ More often we find McLane struggling with the problem of knowing a lot. It’s uncool to be too smart – and anyway poetry isn’t rocket science. We know that it has to be, as Keats said, proved on the pulse. But you might feel sometimes, in My Poets as well as in the offhand freestyle of her incidentally rhymed verse, that McLane is playing the naif a little too much. It’s not just the exclamatory mood, the run-on sentences and devil-may-care enjambment. She interweaves two centos that seem to namecheck half the poetry world (yearbook-style, again), and makes an anaphora poem out of ‘My Acknowledgments’ at the back of the book. The crowd is ever at her back: she wants to be inclusive and approachable, not intellectual and forbidding. She likes to quote Louise Glück’s ironic line: ‘The great thing/is not having/a mind.’ And yet despite her fear of social diseases – of being too smart, too esoteric, too enthusiastic, too alien – she seems to long to go back to some version of college, to the self-rejuvenating Dawn School, or to Folk School: ‘I am going to Folk School/to learn how to be/one of my people.’ She has a Dionysian desire to dissolve boundaries between persons and longs for the kind of fellowship promised by a church; the trouble is she only gets the kind offered by a school. Mz N at Oxford: ‘So how are you/going to commodify/your brain/asks the mulleted wanker/at the first sherry hour/which features no sherry/and lasts a grim three hours.’

To be uncool is, finally, to be insufficiently contemporary. But when Mz N is so contemporary that she goes on a date with a man who brings clingfilm and duct tape to bed (‘Mz N Thirteenth Floor’), it clashes with her penchant for transcendence:

I’d be promiscuous
if I weren’t so contemptuous
this friend told Mz N one night
Uh huh
Everybody
has a thing
they really want
and no one will give it to them
& that’s the thing they want
Desire
is endless
disappointment
Desire is lack
blah blah blah

By contrast, in the wittily titled ‘Mz N Abyme’, she philosophically refigures orgasm as the combustion of a desire that is ‘fuller/than yr eventual/dust’. And in the next poem, ‘Mz N Love Lies Sleeping/Moon’, she finally gets the date she deserves:

There is a long debate
among the philosophers
of love do you love
the beloved or her qualities
It’s clear Mz N loves
the beloved asleep
right now in the swart tent
they set out in the night
in the moon’s slow rising
in love’s remembering

The poem segues into an argument with the Elizabethans, who itemised their lovers’ qualities in song: ‘as if love’s plum lips/hips and breasts/long thighs and singularly arched/brows lakeblue eyes … praised/could ever start to raise/the sail on the boat/now setting forth/on a moonlit pond.’ And yet it does – the boat is McLane’s own poem. Playing at being at variance, she ends up in agreement with the poets for whom all love is folded into song, and song is the vehicle for the soul.

After the miseducation of Mz N, McLane returns in Some Say to the pure lyric, and though the beloved is a frequent addressee, more often the solo self is confronting the sublime universe. This is from ‘Night Sky’:

see the North Star kiss Mars
& Venus unveil her face
as admen brand the stars
and men sell shares in space
the multiverse contracts
to a single implacable place
where nothing you can imagine
will never not take place

Mixed in is a surfeit of literary quotation (pointedly no pop culture). Mz N had Sidney’s sad steps, Cicero’s ‘O tempora O mores!’, Lowell’s ‘Why not say what happened’ and Blake’s ‘Mock on mock on’; Some Say folds in ‘Ding an sich’, Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, Baudelaire’s ‘luxe, calme et volupté’. The lexical fetishism, which McLane admitted in My Poets, is also on show. There, she went into ecstasies over Chaucer’s use of the word ‘kankedort’ (‘speculatively defined as a “difficult situation”’); in Same Life she singled out ‘spatchcocked’; in World Enough, ‘fuckwind’; and here in Some Say, ‘fell’, after Tom Pickard’s Fiend’s Fell – there is no such noun in American English. And yet, all this doesn’t just appeal to the insider; it feels spontaneously generated, like her rhymes – the flotsam of a mind steeped in books.

In one of my favourite poems in the book, ‘Crux/Fern Park’, McLane gets lost in a wood while skiing. It’s unlike Frost’s wood:

No roads diverged
no ski trail split

the mind forked itself
and doubled back

and back and back
among the black spruce and tamaracks

This is a bit like Frank O’Hara retracing his steps on the day Lady died; but here the mind must backtrack out of a state of aesthetic disorientation:

the first ski marks almost effaced
by a second and then a third guess …

and a black unidentifiable thing
out of the corner of the eye.

Meanwhile the linked vowels make their own path to a clearing. The clever girl who once confidently told off that O’Hara poem for displaying a ‘lack of emotion in urban surroundings’ has become proficient at last in fruitful bewilderment. No one’s cleverness ever saved them from heartbreak, but to be struck dumb has its enchantments.