When titles are well written, they strike our interest and pull us into the main text, but they also are part of the main text – adding to the story, the voice, the emotional resonance – and should never be something without which a text can survive or make sense. I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl – chosen by Lynn Emanuel for the 2008 Kathryn A. Morton Prize in Poetry – does just those things and is exactly what the title of a book should be; even before readers get to what’s inside of the book, it is striking, creative, intriguing, and relevant.
The titles of individual poems, too, are noteworthy and often smirk-inducing: “The Poem with Its Teeth Caught in the Carpet”; “‘Would You Like Me to Walk Your Baby?’”; “To Step off the El’s Chlamydeous Tongue”; “I Want to Tell Her I Won’t Need Calculus, I Want to Warn Her”; and “I Show Up Twelve Years Late for Curfew” to name a handful. These titles share a wry humor that evokes a bit of eerie uncertainty – danger seems to be lurking just beneath the surface, then fear, regret and disappointment.
Of course, a brilliant title isn’t the only thing – the rest of the work has to live up to the success of its title, and I’m sure I’m not alone when I say I have more than once been tempted by a fabulous title only to be disappointed with the poem or book after reading it in its entirety. McGlynn’s poetry – thankfully – does not disappoint; her poems complement and play off of their titles (and vice versa), as if they are members of an orchestra responding to their conductor. Just as the titles in I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl demonstrate tension between wit and grisliness, the complete poems do the same.
The humor on the surface of these poems dissolves to reveal bitterness and a sense of serious, unfinished business, which the title poem clearly exhibits:
I can only assume
they don’t see the significance of my presence
but I must say 1994 is a simpler time – not everyone is suspect
I crawl up next to
my old house & look through a lit window
my mother reads
a book in bed I want to knock on the glass, there’s something
I need to tell her
Most of us can relate to that desire to return and confront someone in our pasts – the use of the word “kill” is more than likely figurative, the desire to tell someone something is very real. This book gives us permission to play out those literal and figurative fantasies, which provides, maybe, a sense of relief for readers. Even so, any wry smiles of recognition soon crack from the realization that we are latching on to things in the past that can’t be changed, things that are far gone and should not affect us now. The speaker in these poems shares our faltering smiles when she uses the poems to investigate the realities of her present (and her past(s)).We – the speaker and the readers – all become trapped between a need to hold on and a need to let go,
and she only half in the shell of this time
an aneurysm opens its trap, or the devil says:
you will never know her, you never even happened
McGlynn’s poems navigate space on the page, mimicking the speaker’s meditative negotiation of time and internal conflict. The volume itself is broken into three sections: “Planchette,” “Visitant” and “Revenant.” Each section calls to mind the past, and a visit into the past – via séance? – as well as eliciting the idea of ghosts and haunting. “Is this how the dead continue to watch?” the speaker asks us in different ways throughout the book, investigating the methods in which the living, too, watch the dead, the past: “Through my window I see my sister step from her car. / She plans to confront me about things she can’t yet know.”
Some poems take on “traditional” left justification, with line breaks and stanzas, but the majority fall into four different categories with distinct visual impact: right-justified couplets; a kind of staggered, woven single stanza that often inhabits more of the center of the page; two or three vertical columns, each broken into stanzas and lines; and a combination of the three previous styles. The forms represent on the page the conflicts within our speaker, as well as the conflict between her present and past; they show how such tension can blur boundaries and allow us to travel in time, if only in meditation, mental séance.
“When I Came to There Was a Pearl and a Fish Hook” is a poem in two columns that seems to investigate this “middle” in time and space, a point during which there may be no clear thought or memory – a point like a blackout, or white space between columns. The blank space in time and memory, represented between columns of text on the page, may show us that there is no way to stand with any clarity on that line between past and present; there is no moment when “past” becomes “present”; time is only always “before” and “now,” and we must straddle the line in order to make sense of anything:
then something moved in the sun tea jar I’d been brewing
for the past month the thing stared out
it put a jelly fist against the glass it had 4 finger buds
he pulled out and it didn’t make much sound
but when I couldn’t see his car anymore I put my nose
right down next to that blue smear and breathed in
I got real high but the pearl was gone I don’t know how
the hook was still there I moved my hands
through the stuff like gin I went inside to make myself a baby
What makes this poem one of the best in the book is that it can be read in multiple ways. It can be read across the page, “leaping” the white space of the speaker’s / narrative’s uncertainty; or it can be read vertically, left-hand column (top-to-bottom), then right-hand column (top to bottom).
Unfortunately, not all of McGlynn’s “column” poems – although still very stunning poems – are successful in this way. At times, it is unclear how the author would like us to read them. “The Thing in the Middle Which Has No Corner” is such a poem:
a hash-marked door flapped back there then
something moved a heavy smell rang like
an old rotary phone full in the face and then
three stump-legged sheepdogs covered in
tumors got under the house which wasn’t
mine to move then by god they moved it
In these poems, the leaps between lines within columns are often large and disjointed (confusing, compared to line breaks in the aforementioned poem “When I Came to…”) and the syntax of lines when read across the white space (left-to-right) between columns is strikingly clear in comparison. This would lead me to believe that readers are meant to read the poem in the latter manner (across, as opposed to column by column); however, in order to do this, we may fight against a habit of reading poetry in stanzas, top to bottom through line breaks, one column / stanza at a time. Then when we come to a poem that can be read so clearly in both ways (as in “When I Came to…”), it’s possible to be even more uncertain about how to read McGlynn’s other column poems, such as “The Thing in the Middle...”. In other words, we may grapple with the question “if these poems can be read with a fair amount of ease in multiple ways, am I supposed to read the other poems with a fair amount of ease in the same ways?”
Ultimately, though, in case of confusion such as this, McGlynn’s columns are close together on the page, which pulls at a reader’s natural tendency to read horizontally, left to right, and I think that is enough to show us that we should read across the columns, horizontally across the page. But limiting us to this one way of reading a poem also limits the poem’s potential for meaning, the reader’s potential for participating in that meaning-making. Especially when we are reading poems about the hazy middle space “which has no corner,” it is disappointing to be presented with limitations and corners. Luckily this doesn’t happen often and it doesn’t affect the quality of McGlynn’s poems in general.
Regardless of form and use of space, every poem in I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl has a highly unique – yet familiar – use of language, a dialect specific to this speaker that denotes the oddity of emotion and story McGlynn presents to us:
She fishes in her pink robe for a pack of cigarettes,
places a menthol between her feathering lips,
flicks her lighter, picks her cuticle,
tells us out of the corner of her mouth
to stop gaping and eat our fucking Lucky Charms.
The ritalin girls who watched
the babies said rape then they
all started to cry, their fat flesh quivering in jeans: Jesus…
she can only make one long milk blanched face
I mean she’s down under the dust ruffle
and taps 17 times on my bedpost, which is a wheel
like the thing’s a gurney and she’s some daguerreotype wet nurse
What’s so satisfying about this book is that along with a certain familiarity – of the characters, the images, the language and pop culture references – at every turn, we are confronted with odd, powerful images and a bit of whimsy (“her tongue made a sound / like a whip culled of freshwater eel”; “coals in a jewelbox / stars in a coalsack”; “accidental blue eggs on my bed sheet”; “something like a dulcimer / only it isn’t a dulcimer, it’s the bones of his 9 year-old daughter”) that can knock us off balance in surprising ways. As a reader, I find myself thinking “I don’t know what that is / what that means, but I love it and at the same time it makes perfect sense,” which to me is an indicator of great, original writing – fabulous, well-crafted poetry that is as fun to read as it is thought- and emotion-provoking.
Karyna McGlynn has written a book that coalesces; its parts can stand alone but they are phenomenal when put together. I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl is unique and not only worth reading but worth holding on to; I have already added it to my shelves.