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Mary & the Giant Mechanism

  • Image: Image
  • Book Type: Poetry
  • by: Mary Molinary
  • Date Published: August 2013
  • ISBN-13: 978-1-936797-23-3
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 80pp
  • Price: $16.95
  • Review by: Andrea Dulberger

One challenge with reading poetry that seems to be creating its own forms for what it is seeing and expressing is the tension between the urge to absorb the work as it is presented and an urge to search for clues—to go digging in, and perhaps between, the lines. On my first read through Mary Molinary’s Mary & the Giant Mechanism, I jotted little notes to myself and often thought, “hmmm . . .” On my second read-through, I mostly flipped through the pages at random, sometimes reading sections out of order, and thought “Ohh!” I think one of the successes of this poet’s first book of poetry is that it did compel me to go searching for larger “mechanisms” (to echo the title) that link the images and themes presented here.

The book is structured with two long sequences and two one-page poems that appear after each. Taken as a whole, the work casts a wide net, circling around themes related to time, perception, consciousness, war. Yet there is no treatise here; the poems gain their energy and suggest their questions from how they use imagery and narrative voice and lyrical language.

The first long sequence is titled “The Book of 8:38” and seems at first like a play on the medieval books of hours, which were illustrated Christian devotional texts. Molinary gives an epigraph at the beginning of the sequence from Rilke’s The Book of Hours, and the work does echo Rilke in that the narrator is deeply engaged in wonder about an invisible presence in daily life: here, that of the repeating specificity of time. One page begins: “How we inhabit this same space secretly / thrills me. Like Einstein. Time’s / little algorithms of glint & possibility.” Why focus one’s attention on the possibilities of one moment in time? “The most dangerous things are small . . . / miniature flame hiding in the wood . . .” And prior to that: “Given a theory of miniatures, 8:38 / is a weapon of mass destruction & to be feared.” This sense of time’s explosive potential, as well a vision of the future as a kind of flame unseen but in “hiding,” are some of the threads embedded in the sequence.

“The Book of 8:38” also has a fitting epigraph from Muriel Rukeyser’s poem “Breaking Open”: “Then I came entire to this moment . . .” I think of Rukeyser as a poet who was often contemplating relationships, especially between women and those in their lives or in regard to situations in the world. Throughout this long poem sequence, 8:38 is personified and brought into daily life with the narrator: “Tonight the relationships are clear. / 8:38 and I exchange glances.” The speaker shares what she’s learned about this one moment’s preferences—how it prefers tea and eggs to her coffee and toast; how it can be “so quiet” it seems like it is no longer in the room, “but elsewhere, / tumbling through the volume of itself.” These depictions are full of playfulness and surprise, an intimacy that the speaker isn’t entirely sure how to handle: “. . . 8:38 reads me all day, all day I can / tell it nothing.” The question “what is time ‘telling’ us?” is one undergirding the whole work. Here is a line where the personal interaction with 8:38 swings wide:

8:38 told me that the 21st
century will be not unlike the 20th
what with its 8:38s following
its 8:37s & all the stories
those with Names have told one
another to make themselves feel

The second long sequence in Mary & the Giant Mechanism, “Bird Signs,” moves with an urgency over a wide range of observations; there are birds, death, ancestors, migrations, photographs, a four-chambered heart pacing a stage. Some of these poems feel like sketches and others like layered paintings, so reading the author’s note at the end that this sequence is “in conversation” with many of the paintings of Morris Graves made sense to me. I was not familiar with this artist so I went searching to learn more: I found his iconic image from 1944 called “Bird Maddened by the Sound of Machinery in the Air” and learned that he saw his often wounded birds as symbolic representations of consciousness—which Molinary describes as “a reflection of the inner self” in her end-note. In Molinary’s poems, the birds are often witnesses of pain and devastation. In “Burial of the new law / bird singing in moonlight” she writes: “Thus did torture enter the common tongue & pop culture like a yawn / Thus was nevertheless a bird heard unseen in the weeping willow.”

The poems of the second sequence gather images and experiences with a sense that the full story is always just out of the picture. As the narrator of “War maddened bird following St. Elmo’s fire” writes: “What we cannot or dare not / see may be the truest things.” I find the second poem of the sequence, titled “Little known bird of the ribcage,” to be one of the grounding points for the whole collection, as its images and ideas loop backward to ones presented earlier and then forward into the rest of “Bird Signs.” When this section from the middle of the poem mentioned “The cell we have in common,” my mind went back to “The Book of 8:38,” and the idea of time’s repetitions as that cell felt close at hand:

The political prisoner
Awakes in the same
Cell with the same
First thought as yesterday
The cell we have in common
The target we share
What you believed once
Still holds: the body
Free or imprisoned
Your bird is your secret
A rod of carbon in an arc
Of light infinitely
Before we were fossils
We were merely
Hungry & chattering

There is a great deal to appreciate in Mary & the Giant Mechanism, from the rich imagery to the palpable sense that a lot is at stake here—whether due to the violence of war or the march of time in our daily lives or what we allow ourselves to see and remember. Mary Molinary’s first book engages with multiple themes in unique ways, and offers much to contemplate.

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Review Posted on March 03, 2014

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