Review by David Ayers

Astoria
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
ending it
with his own mouth
chewing on itself
before swallowing
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 the remainder.

A little later in "If There Is Another World," she writes:

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 collection.

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," Mörling writes:

What will become of us?
     Besides coats, besides shoes
on a rack
           in the Salvation Army Thrift store.
What will become of us
     after our eyes
have gone up in smoke
           carrying our visions?

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 of
"After Herbert," for example:

Believe me,
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:

           The ocean
is for sale today
     at the little makeshift
lemonade stand on the beach—

           The blue sky
is half off—
     The clouds
are already sold out.
           But you might try
to bargain down
     the moon
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 attributes:

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
and without
knowing it
lived on
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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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