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Contemporary Poetry and Poetics






Boruch’s poetry sustains repeated readings, first of all
because of her inventiveness in language and imagery. 
She is not easy, however, and the reader must be alert
for syntactical switches and the resulting ambiguity. 
Boruch can take almost any subject and stir it up
in unusual ways....

Marianne Boruch’s poetry embraces the art of surprise.  While her poems celebrate the mundane (swimming with her son, appreciating the beauty of a flower), they transform the common and the everyday into the extraordinary and unreal.  In many respects, she shares traits with the magical realists.   Simply put, her poems attempt to untangle reality and to get to the mysterious heart of things.   In addition, her poetry assumes connections through time whether by means of family or by traditions. Her readers can expect to be drawn into her poems by the beauty of her language, her warmth, her humor — and then taken on a daring surreal ride through the regions of consciousness we all possess but only a few can chart.  Boruch writes a kind of “leaping poetry” advocated by Robert Bly.  The term encompasses a sense of boundlessness and time-travel.  In her interview with Kerilyn Harkaway, Boruch states, “I remember Robert Bly saying . . . that you should always be asking in the middle of your poem: how many worlds can I visit?” Within the parameters of her lyric poems, Boruch takes her reader to many different worlds.
    Born in Chicago, Illinois, on 19 June 1950, to Martha Taylor Boruch and Edward Boruch, Marianne Boruch has an older brother, Michael Boruch, a photographer and college teacher of photography.  Her mother was a homemaker until 1973 when she became a travel agent.  She died in 2003.  Edward Boruch (1922-1986) was the son of devout Catholic Polish immigrants.  His mother was a rural peasant and his father a carpenter from Krakow.  They landed at Ellis Island about 1912 but met in Chicago.  Marianne Boruch’s mother, originally from Tuscola, Illinois, was neither Polish nor Catholic, and had to convert to marry.  She ended up being the committed church-goer in the family and the overseer of her children’s Catholic schooling.  Boruch often writes poems about her family and with special poignancy about her grandparents.      Boruch attended the University of Illinois in Urbana, graduating in 1972.   Between her undergraduate degree and her departure to Amherst and the University of Massachusetts for her M. F. A., Boruch held a variety of jobs.   She married David L. Dunlap in August 1976.  Their son Will N. Dunlap was born on April 1, 1983.  In Amherst, she studied with poets James Tate and Joseph Langland, completing her M. F. A. in 1979.  She has taught at Tunghai University in Taiwan, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of Maine in Farmington, but for most of her professional life at Purdue University.
    Professor of English at Purdue, Boruch also teaches in the Warren Wilson MFA program.  At Purdue, she won the Excellence in Teaching Award in 1991 and again in 2004.  She has also won two Fellowships in Poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts, among other awards and honors.  Her numerous essays on poetry and poets were published first in a variety of literary magazines and then as Poetry’s Old Air.  She regards essay writing as being similar to the writing of poems and tells interviewer Brooke Horvath that “Both poetry and the essay come from the same impulse — to think about something and at the same time, see it closely, carefully, and enact it.”  Her second collection of essays, In the Blue Pharmacy, appeared in 2005.  Boruch, an accomplished essayist and poet, rewards our attention. 
    Boruch’s poetry sustains repeated readings, first of all because of her inventiveness in language and imagery.  She is not easy, however, and the reader must be alert for syntactical switches and the resulting ambiguity.  Boruch can take almost any subject and stir it up in unusual ways, from her grandfather to playing the cello.  Brooke Horvath finds that all of Boruch’s poems are characterized by “a kind of defamiliarizing of something . . . we assume we know all about but that suddenly — through the metaphors, the unexpected connections and descriptive words . . . — leads us into mystery.”  Perhaps because of her Catholic background and schooling, (she terms herself a “lapsed Catholic”) Boruch is drawn to mystery and/or spiritual matters, not in a dogmatic way, but as one aware of several layers, at least, of reality.  She, in fact, tells Horvath that “A poem is a many-layered thing.”  There is magic in Marianne Boruch’s poetry, all the more powerful for the subtlety of her mind and the sureness of her craft.
    Understanding the influence of Chagall on Boruch can greatly enhance the reading of her first volume of poetry, View from the Gazebo (1985).  She tells Horvath that she’s “always loved” Chagall’s work and would like her own poetry to possess the qualities she sees in him: “the effect of both being representational and playing lightly, freely with that quality . . . so one is both grounded, on one hand, and let loose by the more lyric, sometimes more surreal elements.”  In “The Violinist Beginning to Fly” — with its note “after Chagall” — the influence is most obvious.  Picturing the man in Chagall’s painting, Boruch opens her poem with: “They plan to get him down / a loop of thread / pulled from his trousers . . . .”  In a poem such as “A Line is Just a Series of Dots,” Boruch’s tone is playful yet serious.  Her subject is high school Geometry class where that dry subject turns magic.  First, the quotidian: “Next to me, Curry / popped jellybeans in her Twiggy cut . . . .”  Her tone shifts when she gets to her speaker and her perceptions: “These / were magic tools: protractor & compass.  Did they / shine in the dark?”  She mentions how her teacher “Sister Francis gummed her words,” but it doesn’t impede the awakening she has to geometric truth.  For the speaker, geometry provides an entry into altered perception, a world where “A Line Is Just a Series of Dots.”  Characteristically, only two lines in this poem are end-stopped; the rest are enjambed and the poem moves quickly through its permutations and associations.  It is also a clear example of how she both “thinks about something” (alternate reality) and “enacts” a scene from her past. 
    In Gazebo, several poems concern her speaker's relationship with her dead grandfather: “Standing by Your Grave,” “First Snow,” and “Passage.”  He was a story-teller, at times too garrulous or too morose, his silences baffling.  Still, the speaker would have him back so she could listen to him again.  In “Passage,” however, Boruch performs a ritual exorcism.  The speaker's memories of her grandfather are fairly constant and troubling.  It’s time to move on, not because she hates him but because she has dealt with what he means to her.  In the poem, she takes “the old man in me” and goes down to the river.  She has to be harsh because he’s dear to her and she might relent.   Boruch writes: “He would not look at me. / Blunt feather / as he moves, dark trace / spine & rib. / I thought: you sullen bird, / you fish.”  Naming him thus, she reduces him in size — and effect.  Then she swears at him: “teach me now, bastard, / thin pajamas, stepping / into wind.”  If that is all he is, he no longer has power over her. 
    In exorcising the grandfather figure, the poet does what she must do for the health of her being: to become who she is and not her grandfather on a lesser level.  Even so, the enactment of the poem shocks.  Boruch explores the mystery of such familial relationships, and how various personas inhabit us.   A grandfather provides her with an avenue to an alternate reality.
    Her next collection, Descendant (1989), contains three sections.  In the first, she explores familiar — and family — things.  The second is a series of flower poems which become supple meditations on characteristic themes: love, death, the mystery of inhabiting this world.   Section three includes things made, either by hand or by the imagination, with five poems about paintings.  The book’s title comes from “Thanksgiving,” a poem close to the end of the volume.  Thinking about this family holiday, but never referring to its usual events, Boruch writes: “Every ancestor sleeps in our moving bodies, / mine, yours, all of us descendants . . . .”  Boruch’s sense of human connection through time predominates here.  Then, recalling how she and her son planted bulbs, how they “laid them gently into the cold grave socks,” she imagines those bulbs as “dumb / as bits of coal / and descending inward. Descendant.”  Similar to that need to go down into the earth in order to grow, the human parallel is imagined as “This trap door / we drop down every day,” that is, the world of sleep and dreams, the unconscious.  In this volume, as in Gazebo, Boruch’s poems maintain an invigorating dynamic between the real and the surreal.
    Poet and critic Philip Booth finds that Marianne Boruch’s poems “are complex rather than simple rooms;  . . . they bring the world’s strangeness, and their own, home to whatever reader is open to old mysteries, both in dreams and in the waking life they illuminate.”  The poem which opens the volume, “My Son and I Go See Horses,” takes a relatively simple event and complicates it.  Her son, entranced by the animals, finds himself “in heaven, and these / the gods he wants to father; so they will save him.”  The twists in this sentence take a child’s simple wonder at the strangeness of these sensate creatures and place it in the category of “old mysteries,” the sense that animal life contains some form of the divine.
    Boruch describes the process of writing the flower poems at the center of this book to Horvath:  “It was a planned and sustained idea . . . . We lived in Farmington, Maine then and I went out prowling around the neighborhood, in the gardens of friends, to find flowers that somehow drew me. I sat down right in front of them, observing, jotting down lines, doing life studies . . . .”  Boruch’s orderly creative process belies her purpose in writing them. She wanted, she tells Horvath, “to take on a typically poetic subject . . . and make it strange: to see something terrifying in flowers, in beauty itself maybe.” Each poem is stunning in its own way, although Booth finds them “set pieces, more posed than organic.”
    “Purple Iris” doesn’t appear that “set,” beginning as it does, in the past and a memory of trying to cool off on a hot summer day.  Fans work for a while, then stories she and her brother make up about how cold it is. Her brother tells “lies” about icebergs and penguins, the two siblings frozen it’s so cold: “we’d be ice.  We could see / right through each other.”  The second stanza moves into the present, the speaker and another person arguing, coldly.  So cold are they, she can “see right through your ice” and into the yard, its trees, violets and “one dark iris.”  Seeing it, “high as radar / on its filament stem” she can move beyond the present moment and its tension, for the iris is “a perennial startle / of invention and courtesy, and I forget / we are angry, forget we have done this / damage to ourselves.”  As the poem moves through its various worlds (past,present; heat, cold; kitchen interior, exterior garden), its language and imagery continually surprise. 
    The poet Donald Revell finds something in Descendant and in “the act of flowering” which he identifies as being intrinsic to Boruch’s creative process.  Revell states that “In Descendant, the act of flowering signifies powerful trajectories, the effect of which is an accumulation of movements off of center into hybrid blossom, something much more diverse and like a life in time than formal argument.” “Purple Iris” accomplishes its “act of flowering” through “powerful trajectories”: the long-ago summer leads to the icebergs, which segue into the emotional ice of the kitchen, which resolves itself in the “one dark iris.”  None of these movements deals directly with the domestic argument or its cause.  Each touches it obliquely.  This is what Revell means by the “hybrid blossom” — or the poem itself.  Disparate forces led to its flowering and it partakes of all of them.
    Commenting on the third section of Descendant, Philip Booth says that “Marianne Boruch clearly belongs to an Einsteinian rather than Newtonian generation of poets.”  He says, “She was born to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. . . .”   A lack of certainty permeates Boruch’s poems, the sense that “everything is relative” — even death.  Take, for example, the extremely odd, but poignant poem “The Window.”  In it, a man has committed suicide by hanging himself.  Inside the room, he contemplates his death.  Outside the room, he can hear a woman “selling fish.”  He scoffs at this woman and can even smell the fish, for “those fish [are] flashing up / their sour nobility.”  Undeniably bleak, the poem ends with the man moving to the window, not because he wants “to reconsider” his suicide, but “perhaps to acknowledge something / over the fishwife, / over her rotting luminous cart . . . .” In other words, it’s not life itself that he rejects, both “rotting” and “luminous,” but his own life. 
    Marianne Boruch has a dark side, able to contemplate death, destruction, the rotten and the sour.  Donald Revell sums this up well by saying that “Descendant, though a book of brilliant illuminations, achieves many of its effects by chiaroscuro, and, as in a Rembrandt interior, what transpires in shadow often complicates and somehow completes what transpires in the bright foregrounding.” 
    Moss Burning (1993), her third book, opens up a new phase for Marianne Boruch, one in which she becomes more representational.  At the same time, more narrative elements enter her work.   She explains to Horvath that “Before, I had childhood available, but now, at 42, there’s enough distance that my twenties are opening up . . . .I can see those years in context, more clearly how they were, not only for me but for a generation.   So an historical weight can come into the poems, but that seems to require more narrative to pull off.”  While acknowledging more narrative elements, Boruch refers to “The Luxor Baths” as “probably the only honest-to-God narrative in the collection.”  This poem details the narrator’s first trip to a bathhouse in downtown Chicago with a friend more familiar with the place and its routines.  While Boruch has never written in a distant or abstract manner, the tone here is strikingly intimate and conversational.   “I forgot to say it was snowing.  It was / February, so the wet warmth / did something fuzzy to my head. / I mean, I felt faint, not sick / or maybe it was the thought / of taking off my clothes.”   Boruch’s handling of voice throughout this collection is similar to these lines from “Luxor Baths.”  Aware of her reader/listener (“I forgot to say”), she represents to us not just what’s going on outside, but her interior life as well (“I felt faint.”)  Poet/critic Judith Kitchen lauds Boruch for her ability to connect with the reader: “The speaker . . . is all too aware of the invisible, inner lives we lead; she recognizes this in herself and therefore in others.”
    “Moss Burning,” the title poem, is also lengthy, but less narrative than “Luxor Baths.”  Built upon an image of a peat field which refuses to stop burning, the poem, like many others by Boruch, moves by means of association from real to fabulous, from waking life to dream life.  At the same time, the theme of the invisible becoming visible is constant.  When the speaker imagines the bog at night she sees “a kind of idle indifferent burning, as if some / weird lower-depth sea life had come / with their little head lanterns . . . .”  Then she turns to her husband “asleep in your exhaustion, open-mouthed, astonished / at the inner planet.”  With her keen awareness of the innerness of things and people, including the moss burning, she appears overwhelmed and the poem ends with “too much of the invisible, visible.”
    While her longer poems give Boruch free range to try new things, shorter poems like “Argument, With Migration” and “Dr. Williams’ Desk” continue to be her forte.  In the former, she explores the tension between the way the two people are (“impossible”) and how the migrating cranes appear (“radiant”).   Turning from the “you,” the speaker focuses her binoculars upon the cranes descending to feed upon stubble in a corn field.  They look as “deliberate as monsters, lovable as any clumsy thing.”  She then turns her binoculars on her partner, perhaps looking for the same lovability.  Boruch, always oblique in her approach, would never say such a thing directly, however.  She prefers to suggest: “I fiddled with the lens: you / blurred, not blurred.”  The poet provides the reader with the images and the associations.  We can draw our own conclusions.  As Judith Kitchen observes, “Her inner landscape becomes ours.”
    In “Dr. Williams’ Desk,” Boruch pays homage to the American modernist poet and M. D., William Carlos Williams.  In doing so, she highlights the interplay between exterior and interior.  She imagines someone walking by his office and looking in, thinking “so what about it.”  His desk is “all clutter,” his chair “one of those worthy / wooden jobs . . . .”  Boruch’s slangy diction contributes to the humorous effect.  As critic Stephen Behrendt points out, Boruch’s humor “subverts and humanizes” her subject matter and theme.  He concludes about the overall effect of Moss Burning that “Boruch’s is a poetry about making visible what would else be invisible.  It is about the risks — and the satisfactions — of confronting the many layers of anxiety and intensity that define modern existence.”  
    A Stick That Breaks and Breaks (1997), her fourth collection, gives us a poet at full maturity, adept at exploring the world in her short, often elegiac lyrics, but also exercising what critic Brian Teale calls “a more eccentric and electric approach to her . . . sense of syntax and juxtaposition . . .”(170).  Boruch prefaces this collection with “Omens,” a long poem exploring a variety of omens from bells to an old scar, one omen morphing into another, up to omen 20.  Omens seem portentous to the “old catholic in me / falling down a well.”  She recalls being a child and holding her hand up to window light to “play x-ray, seeing bone, past bone to throbbing marrow . . . . Any omen / is x-ray.”   Any omen, that is, can lead us to greater depth of insight.  As Brian Teare points out, “each poem [in this book] becomes omen, and metaphor a lens that both lets us look out into the world and into the poet’s mind.”  Or, as David Roderick expresses it, “Boruch chooses . . . to push her poems beyond an initial realization so that she can reach a more wonderful truth” (198).  
    “Swimming Lesson” exemplifies this process.   She begins with an ordinary occurrence, going to the local pool for a swim with her son.  The two of them, accomplished swimmers, cavort in the water.   They can’t help noticing, however, a small boy terrified by the pool and weeping uncontrollably.   Even diving to the bottom of the pool, the speaker can “hear it — the weeping / endlessly, like a stick that breaks / and breaks, like a starless night in summer / when all there is / is the roaring body’s pulse . . . .”  The boy’s weeping functions as an omen of the fragility of the human experiment in the context of the large and pitiless universe.  Boruch takes her metaphor to one level (“a stick that breaks”) and then a step beyond, providing a fuller, more tragic perception.  This image of the weeping boy correlates well with the sorrowful tone of many of her poems and her sense of the inconsolable.  Significantly, she draws the title of her book from this poem.
    Consider, also, a poem such as “The Dove,” elegiac in tone, but also surprising in the way Boruch’s structures its dynamics.  She begins the poem abstractly and backwards from its triggering point: “Not that it’s easy to keep certain moments, / not that anything in the underworld / is evident except in shards, / in bits of feathers.”  “The underworld” is a reference to the unconscious, the region of the Id where chaos reigns.  After the wide-lens opening, she moves to particulars.  Her son comes home from 4th grade to tell her how “boys had stalked the dove / to the lavatory,” and how they began to hit it with “sticks, and one a brick.”  Watching them torture the bird, her son feels horror and helplessness.  He wanted to stop them but told her, “Mama, / I couldn’t, too many.”   She imagines what “the rest of [his] day” was like: “in class, at lunch, it was upturned wings, / the bloody zig-zag hard against rafters, / down again, the sound of boys / in their glee . . . , ” until he comes home and tells her.   Boruch concludes the poem with an image of the dove as it enters the psyches of mother and son: “And it flew then, a circling / tight in both of us. Soundless.  A descent.”  The bird is, of course, dead, but its spirit has entered them, has descended into them.  Thus it is not dead, but an omen which brings home to them a sign “from the underworld” where random acts of violence entangle one another.   
    New and Selected Poems (2004) provides strong, representative poems from Boruch’s four books of poetry plus twenty-six new poems, the most striking of which is “Bad Cello.”  Ostensibly, the speaker reflects on how badly she plays the cello.  Even so, she continues to play because she loves it.  Boruch’s tone is humorous and self-deprecating.  She practices at home her “almost Bach,” her “almost Haydn” and hears against the window the “scratch-scratch-scratchity” of some bushes she should have cut back.  She’s comfortable with the noise because her bowing of the cello sounds similar.   Moving out of the present, she recalls “how Brahms slept right through my childhood,” a reference to a picture of the 19th-century composer in her grandmother’s house.  In it, “His eyes / were closed” and she imagined he was having a vision or simply “need[ed] his nap.”  Not measuring up to the great musician, the speaker persists anyway, liking what she does “Because I do it / so badly.”  Boruch’s self-deprecation is charming and funny.  Not so funny, the ending of the poem expresses her liking for a particular section of her music, the “Delicious part / going minor / right down the hole, neither what I thought nor / what I dreamt.   Dark in there.  Strange.”  For Boruch, music — like poetry — provides a means of touching an alternate reality, one she can neither predict nor control.  
    In sum, Marianne Boruch’s poetry does not embrace the strange for strangeness’s sake, but because she desires to recognize the invisible substructure of the visible world.  Not a member of any school of poetry, Boruch has an affinity with the magical realists and what they accomplish by refusing to accept the factual or ordinary as the only reality.  In poems that continually surprise, she opens up avenues between the real and worlds that exist just beyond the edges of consciousness.  In this respect, her art possesses the essential power of synthesizing human experience and depicting reality in a more unified way.  At the same time, she writes an engaging poetry, often intimate in tone, often humorous, but never afraid of the darker components of human experience.

Writings by Marianne Boruch:


View from the Gazebo (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1985)
Descendant (Middletown, CT.: Wesleyan University Press, 1989)
Moss Burning (Oberlin, OH: Oberlin College Press, 1993)
Poetry’s Old Air, Essays (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1995)
A Stick that Breaks and Breaks (Oberlin, OH: Oberlin College Press, 1997)
Poems New and Selected (Oberlin, OH: Oberlin College Press, 2004)
In the Blue Pharmacy: Essays on Poetry and Other Transformations (San Antonio, TX: Trinity University Press, 2005)

Further Readings about Marianne Boruch

Behrendt, Stephen C.  “Review of Moss Burning.”   Prairie Schooner.  Fall 1995. v69 n3: 158 (8)
Booth, Philip.  “Loners Whose Voices Move” Review of Descendant. Georgia Review.  Spring 1989. v. 43, n1: 168 (6)
Harkaway, Kerilyn.  “An email interview with Marianne Boruch.”   Hope College, Michigan.   February 2004.  Unpublished.
Horvath, Brooke.  “A Conversation With Marianne Boruch.”  Denver Quarterly.  Fall 1993.  Vol. 28 (2): 105-21.
Kitchen, Judith.  “Inner Worlds” (Review of Moss Burning and others.)  Georgia Review.  Fall 1994.  Vol. 48, n3: 596-600
Revell, Donald.  “’The Memory and Future of Ourselves’: Levertov, Plumly, Upton, & Boruch.”   The Ohio Review.   Winter 1990. n. 45: 91-109.
Roderick, David. "A Stick That Breaks and Breaks."  Verse.  Vol.16 (2) 1999: 198-200.
Teare, Brian.  "A Stick That Breaks and Breaks."  The Black Warrior Review.  Vol.25 (1) 1998: 170-72


© by Claire Keyes


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