By Priscilla Long
This review of I Can’t Remember by Cynthia Macdonald appeared in The Women’s Review of Books, Vol. 15, No. 7 (April 1998), p. 7.
The poems in Cynthia Macdonald’s disturbing, brilliant sixth book, I Can’t Remember, constitute acts of remembering. The poems remember what has been forgotten, repressed, put away. They remember – possibly they inflict – the traumas of childhood and of history, and they do so with concrete images and unsettling immediacy.
A father is lost, not because he has been “screwing around” as we might say, but because “Daddy had been slipping/ his slick, rubber-bound prick into too many others.” The Nazi genocide is depicted, not as the generalized Holocaust, but as one Jew who “smells barbecue/from next door: family burning.” These are not sentimentalizing poems, nor pretty poems, nor easy poems. They do offer, as if to compensate for unremitting, irreparable loss, moments of lush visual beauty. On a Japanese print: “Silk covers the moon’s face…a fan unfurls/displaying reds and purples.” This unfurling to display the hot colors points to another thing “I can’t remember”: forbidden sexuality.
Macdonald is a psychoanalytically oriented poet whose interests range from art to history to women’s underwear. If she is a major poet, and I think she is, her achievement derives in part from how she dissolves the boundaries between large historical issues and events, and private experience. Consider how, in “Vermeer’s Lady Reading at an Open Window,” she represents the 1944 firebombing of Dresden:
She hangs in Dresden.
Perhaps she is a sibyl reading of the
three hundred years hence, of the light
that caused flashcars, flashparks, flashpeople
to run, burning…. (p. 59)
We tend to distance such atrocities by thinking of them in general. Flashcars, flashparks and flashpeople remember them to us as the personal disasters they were: fire burning the living person. Part One (the poems are grouped into four closely interrelated parts) speaks mainly about childhood loss – sudden, absolute loss wrought by death, desertion, or forcible separation. The childhoods evoked include the poet’s own and others: that of a fifteenth-century boy who chokes to death on his quill pen; that of “the inventor of psychoanalysis/whose nursemaid, more mother than his mother,” was dismissed when “Sigi” was too young to lose her; that of a “Little Hetty” who, in “Casual Neglects,” comes “home from school to find an empty house cleared of its furniture./Her Mom forgot to tell her they were moving.”
Macdonald moves easily among centuries and cultures to portray particular childhoods: the poems inform each other and gradually accumulate a sense of childhood itself. Or a sense of loss itself. The poems in I Can’t Remember catalogue death, neglect, abandonment, senility, violence and also what is lost by forgetting. Forgetting can protect from pain (Men “repress fears as if they were/ironing”), but the cost is one more loss: that of feeling itself: “For someone always ripped away, feeling bleaches out/like laundry….”
As “forgetting” flickers from poem to poem, its meanings mutate, thicken, proliferate. The meaning-shifts generate a kind of energy that binds this wide-ranging collection into one of stunning depth and coherence.
Repression, for instance, is an unconscious mental process but also a political action that causes persons and their ideas to be forgotten. In “What No One Should Want to Have” the poets in Prague, 1983, languish behind bars, barred from speech. Yet the statues say what the poets had repressed even before they were repressed:
the language everyone
understands but no one speaks.
There are statues celebrating
family life: stone mothers holding
babies, stirring pots, stone fathers
tossing balls to sons, stone lovers
reading Il Paradiso, releasing
their tears only in the rain…. (p. 9)
What is repressed, the poem seems to say, is present, unyielding as stone, and it speaks even while remaining unspoken. A culture can forget just as a person can. In “Jesus Returns,” Jesus asks “You genuflect?/Have you forgotten I was Jewish?/That made my heavenly Father Jewish,/ Mary and Joseph, too.”
That Jesus was Jewish covers another muted Jewish identity, that of Macdonald herself, or so I gather. She dedicates a previous book, Alternate Means of Transportation, to her father and grandfather, both named Leonard Lee, and to her great-grandfather, Leonard Levy, whose name she considered adding to her own. So a name is lost, a Jewish identity is muted, the Jewish identity of Jesus is forgotten. Just as the transmigration of “forgetting” binds the poems together, a different sort of motion, within the poems, propels them outwards. The lines flit from place to place by association, rather like the motion of the mind itself. Any one poem contains a small universe. “Vermeer’s Lady” ranges from pigment to God’s light, to the Dresden firestorm, to “our own pain,” to the Lady’s lover, to the Jews of Amsterdam in Vermeer’s time, to what is curtained and what is not, to the Diet of Wurms, to the Lady’s ripeness, to Spinoza, to a poet, “looking down intently” like Vermeer’s Lady, trying to get the last line right.
Some associations transmute the particular into the universal. “Children Who Fall off the Edge of the World Because of Secrets” relates how fifteenth-century Portuguese colonizers used children to copy map-sections because, too young to understand, they couldn’t leak trade routes to rival powers. “No way/that she or he could possibly make sense out of the whole.” From this the poem shifts to
As children never can. We try to put
the map together,
placing pink with pink…puzzling
over Mada to see if
land or nesia or gascar will fit and
tell us what we
need to know to let us know the edge
of love is close. (p. 4)
In another kind of association, the poems ride the meaning-shifts of single words into new landscapes. In a poem describing Mary Cassatt’s Woman Bathing, a single stroke (brushstroke) mutates into a “stroke of genius” and a “brush with common life.” In “The Weekend He Died,” the father who dies is the “father by choice./ Choice father.” Add “pick” and “coin” and the poem moves from choice to its opposite – chance:
Jingle words like coins, the change, or covering
for dead eyes. Fingers fiddle. Don’t pick.
How may times have I told you not to?
Don’t pick. But can choose. Cannot choose
the first father, the birth father who killed himself.
Did not choose the second, even prayed.
Cannot choose which death. It could have been a child.
Heads, tails…. (p. 7)
Death, loss and violent rupture continue as leading subjects of Part Two, a group of eleven chicken poems fittingly introduced by a quotation from Mary Shelley: “A murdered chicken will be served.” These poems take banal, common chicken images – Chicken Little, chicken meaning coward and so on – and remember what lies beneath them. Consider the jokey idea of running around like a chicken with its head cut off. We tend to use this expression without a second thought, but the actual sight is pretty gruesome. “Like a Chicken” recalls the upsetting reality and a catastrophic human equivalent: a woman senile as a headless chicken, who can’t remember the name of the beheaded queen (Ann Boleyn), the woman for whom “Loss is the greatest fear, a pendant/hanging from the cut just below/the head’s severing point….” The chicken poems suggest a collective version of the psychoanalytic notion of a screen memory – a seemingly banal memory that exists as a cover story for an unremembered traumatic loss.
Puns, humor, philosophical moments, cultural, literary and political allusions, as well as moments of lyrical beauty, relieve the grim cast of these poems. In “Poet-Chicken Answers the Interviewer” the poet-chicken explains, “My working methods are to sit on my tail till inspiration,/that horsefly, bites. Then if I can, to throw the buzz away/and keep the path of flight.” Later, the poet clucks, “I will not crow about myself….”
Sections Three and Four contain elegies (more loss), but also luminous art poems, a necessary relief. My favorite is the twelve-stanza poem, “Mary Cassatt’s Twelve Hours in the Pleasure Quarter.” The titled stanzas are like miniature paintings that remember Cassatt’s life and work. Here is The Great Fire:
Tangerine, burnt orange, rust
ocher, orange madder: eight of the set
of ten suffused with shades of
orange. Flame. The Pittsburgh of her birth, sky
fused to firestorms. Wet, fugitive blue. (p. 42)
Under Cassatt’s orange pigment, as Macdonald imagines it, lies a childhood inferno. Just so, Woman Bathing conceals sexual pleasure: “What is in back of the back?/Pleasure hidden behind flesh.”
I began this review by saying that I Can’t Remember is brilliant but also disturbing. Such wit – I mean philosophical and linguistic insight but also unremitting cleverness – overlaying such pain does disturb. I found grisly double entendres like the Jewish chicken at Auschwitz who “smokes and thinks” witty but also repellent.
I confess, also, to moments of irritation that I couldn’t entirely explain. Was it, I wondered, the prevalence of penises in the poems, as if Macdonald’s version of psychoanalysis had at its center the orthodox cliche guaranteed to annoy readers like me? We have, in various poems, Daddy’s rubber-bound prick; a water-diviner’s “second prick”; Albert rising to Victoria’s occasion; Hieronymous Cock, who marries Mayken Coecke “who cooked her Cock such juicy dinners/that his vigor grew more proud.” Additional cocks lurk among the chicken poems; and of course “those cigars” smoked by George Sand in one poem aren’t merely cigars.
Or did my intermittent disaffection center on lines like these spoken by Jesus in “Jesus Returns”: “You still don’t seem to understand/however clearly I explain that in the land I visited,/just after B.C. ended, the local populace was Jewish.” Which to my ear are flat prosy uninteresting lines, and never mind that Jesus answers my very complaint with “You think the way I speak is not poetic,/no sweeping phrases? Remember I must use the language of today.” This language of today, does it have to be gray, imageless newspaper language? Even Macdonald doesn’t think so, to judge from other lines in this and other poems.
Certainly, I don’t want “poetic” in the pejorative sense of false, prettified. Nor would I argue against lines powered more by voice than image, as in the querulous adult voice in “The Weekend He Died”: “Don’t pick./ How many times have I told you not to?” Still, I found the patches of explanation taking me out of the poems, rather like having to cross an occasional parking lot during a walk in an old-growth forest.
But in the end, Macdonald won nearly every skirmish I had with her. These poems close the distance between history and the body, between childhood and culture. They close the distance between loss and the language of loss.
Finally, I Can’t Remember stands as a coherent composition, as a single work of art. Each poem fits, as if inevitably, into the whole. What emerges, what accumulates as you read poem after poem, is a vision that is as monumental as it is painful.