Review by David Ayers
by Malena Mörling (University
of Pittsburgh Press, 2006)
After I opened Malena Mörling's Astoria
and read the first poem, "If There Is Another World,"
I said to myself, "this is an ambitious book." The
first two lines of that poem are practically a salvo for what
is to come:
If there is another world,
I think you can take a cab there—
Right away we are introduced to two of Astoria's
major themes: 1) the significance of the beyond, 2) the importance
of the everyday, the mundane. In particular here we see the
mundane as a vehicle providing access to that other world.
Which makes the cab a terrific, maybe even the ideal metaphor,
as the cab is an actual vehicle.
But in Astoria the everyday is more than
a metaphor: it is the real. It is worth considering and celebrating
in its own right. And Astoria does this in a number
of ways, with poems that are by turns panegyric and celebratory,
probative and ascertaining. Frequently the poems are ungrounded
(as in "If There Is Another World") but they are
just as likely to be set in grocery stores, parking lots,
trains, etc. But they all share in this sense of reveling,
almost, in the ordinary.
Also there are some very good, interesting poems
in the tradition of Wordsworth, or Dickinson. Where the everyday
scene becomes a point of departure for something else—a revelation,
the penetration of a deeper mystery, perhaps, or even just
the surprise of the unexpected—like the
strange scene which occurs in the following piece:
Late at Night
It's late at night
and I am on the train
and the man
sitting next to me
is eating himself up.
Limb by limb,
pants legs, shirtsleeves
shoulder blades and all.
The last thing he eats
is his skull,
chunk by thoughtful chunk
with his own mouth
chewing on itself
with a throat
that's already gone.
Of course, with examples like this you can guess
that Astoria is not all sweetness and light. It's also
not uncomplicated. The tug of war between Mörling's two
prevailing strands makes for a rather serious book. A committed
book, I think. (Keats' "fierce dispute" comes to
mind.) The poems are filled with musings on the transience
of human existence, on the impermanence of the everyday. I
think this is absolutely necessary, especially for a collection
that is so otherwise celebratory. In order to properly celebrate
the here and now, with honesty, Mörling also has to tackle
A little later in "If There Is Another World,"
Sooner or later we will all cry
from inside our hearts.
Sooner of later even the concrete
will crumble in silence
along with all the lost road signs.
Most of Astoria's poems, like this one,
don't come across, at first glance, as difficult, or cerebral.
Nevertheless they are complex in the way that really good
poetry can be—whether you call it religious or spiritual,
or whatever. Astoria makes you think about things.
One of the things it makes you think about is faith. Another
is humanity, what it might be that we have in common. Fittingly,
the pronouns we/you/us occur with great regularity in the
As in the previous passage, silence is also invoked,
quite often, in Astoria—as well as the movement towards
"signs." In this Astoria echoes the development
of poetry at the beginning of the last century—the loss of
the one, authoritative voice and the ascendancy of the image.
But as with the last century, in Astoria there is no
clear winner in that struggle.
The best poems, I think, come when those opposing
forces are more or less in balance. In "Becoming a Coat,"
What will become of us?
Besides coats, besides shoes
on a rack
the Salvation Army Thrift store.
What will become of us
after our eyes
have gone up in smoke
Such probings might run the risk of coming across
as heavy-handed, if it weren't for Mörling's deft touch.
She combines the elements well, controlling the images via
the line and serving up questions that seem to evolve naturally
from the contemplation of her surroundings. In this (as well
as in some of her thematic choices) she reminds me an awful
lot of the late Jane Kenyon. William Carlos Williams also
comes to mind.
As with those two writers I just mentioned, Mörling's
images are also very well crafted. While they never totally
absorb (or absolve) the world that is in the process of being
simultaneously celebrated and lost, there are times we almost
wish they would. Consider these lines, taken once again from
"If There Is Another World":
Two days ago 300 televisions
washed up on a beach in Shiomachi, Japan,
after having fallen off a ship in a storm.
They looked like so many
oversized horseshoe crabs
with their screens turned down to the sand.
Televisions/Japan/beach/crabs/sand. This juxtaposition
of the natural and the technological world seems thoroughly
modern/postmodern in its inventiveness; yet in a way it hearkens
back all the way to "Ozymandias"—or arguably even
further, for those crabs are about as primitive as it gets.
It's a pivotal moment in the poem, too, a focusing or distillation
of energies that comes right before the close:
And if you're inclined to, you can continue
in the weightless seesaw of the light
through a few more intersections
where people inside their cars
pass you by in space
and where you pass by them,
each car another thought—only heavier.
Hard to say how effective this would have been
without those televisions. Fortunately we don't have to. The
poem earns it keep by including the objective look. First
back, then forward.
Astoria covers a lot of other ground besides
this. There are many variations on the major themes, and despite
sticking close to home in terms of subject matter, the poems
themselves manage to be very different. Consider the beginning
"After Herbert," for example:
it is nothing special—
Just a backyard
where the yellow thoughts
of the trees
have already floated
to the ground
and where a child
carrying an old
beat-up metal bucket
and a frayed rope
is about to build
a fun fair
The opening lines are very much like the opening
of "If There Is Another World," but from there the
poem tumbles into something that is completely surprising,
and completely different—all captured perfectly by that one
phrase—"a fun fair".
Another factor in Astoria's success is
the excellence of its details. If Mörling's language
might at times be accused of being a bit ordinary, or prosaic,
she mixes the details in a way that is unmistakably poetic.
The pieces resonate—particularly when they are assembled in
a way that we don't expect—when the details are made to clash.
Consider the combination of items that appear in the poem,
"In the Yellow Head of a Tulip," for example:
In the yellow head of a tulip
in the sound of the wind entangled in the forest
in the haphazard combination of things
for sale on the sidewalk
an iron next to a nail-clipper next to a can of soup
next to a starling's feather
in the silence inside of a stone
in tea in music in desire in butter in torture
Pretty ordinary stuff here—an iron, a nail-clipper,
a can of soup. But then, oh yeah, a starling's feather. But
then, oh yeah, torture.
The book covers a wide range of styles as well.
There are several very good prose poems, as well as a handful
of more expansive pieces, such as "131st Street"
and "Simply Lit." There are also some wonderful
list poems, like "In the Yellow Head of a Tulip"
above. One of these is called "The Gift Box." It
opens, aptly, into a vision of Vasko Popa about a third of
the way in:
A box that is a poem
into which Vasko Popa
is diving headfirst
from the heights
Another poem, called "An Inventory,"
imagines the following scene:
is for sale today
at the little makeshift
lemonade stand on the beach—
is half off—
are already sold out.
you might try
to bargain down
to a dime—
Word-play is also a prominent feature, as in
"A W For M," which riffs on Emily Dickinson and
then proceeds, almost giddily, to complete the list of w's
A w is a dog—
A w is a boat in which space floats—
A w is a stone—
A w is neither a v nor a u—
I am a w
Who are you?
Are you a w too?
How dreary not to be a w—
A w is a wig
A w is a member of the willow wildflower family
A w is not awkward
The word awkward is awkward
A w is a joke
grey against the yellow
of Neptune's sixteen moons
Finally, there are the appropriately 'I' moments.
Though they are not selfish moments. They are not impenetrable
moments, but moments that happen to all of us. This one, for
instance, from "A Spring Day":
Not long ago I came
to the exact
middle of my life
for a fraction
of a second
the way we do
Didn't Dante say that? I don't know. He
certainly doesn't seem to mind being liberated in such a way,
in this book. Combined with Mörling's commitment to the
deeper questions, it's moments such as these that make Astoria
such a surprisingly good read.