V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics




While Marianne Boruch’s poetry is most often grounded
in the real world of observable fact, she gives us
the poetry of the mind in the process of coming
to its understandings.  In this respect, her poems join in the modernist
poetic of poets such as Jorie Graham and C. K. Williams.  

The title phrase of Marianne Boruch’s sixth book of poems comes from a line in “Snowfall in G Minor,” a poem more than halfway through the volume:

        snowfall—as in
        grace, fallen from,
        as in a great height, released
        from its promise.

The image of the snow as being “released from its promise” suggests an emergence into reality, of no longer being simply the “promise” of snow, but the actuality.  “Grace, fallen from” also suggests a world of the unredeemed—a relief for the poet because it allows her to create her own world through the power of her thought, her words, her imagination. 
     In the Blue Pharmacy (2005), her collection of essays about poetry, contains a statement about Elizabeth Bishop that might serve as a guide to understanding the nature of Grace, Fallen From.  She praises Bishop for showing us “the whole moving direction of the mind.”  While Marianne Boruch’s poetry is most often grounded in the real world of observable fact, she gives us the poetry of the mind in the process of coming to its understandings.  In this respect, her poems join in the modernist poetic of poets such as Jorie Graham and C. K. Williams.  
    Boruch’s approach is low-key. She speaks with a quiet intimacy and openness of the ordinary events of life: waiting for an elevator, writing words on paper, overhearing someone on a cell phone.  In a poem titled “Lunch” she considers a visit to the zoo, its animals, its visitors all “very matter of fact” until it’s time for lunch:
                                                        the animals
        look up.  Something is about to happen.  Food
        does that.  In this saddest of worlds, think
        lunch and an ocean of hope
        rides over us.  Is it hope?  And too cheap? This
        metaphor filling the moment?  the mind?
        the life finally and exactly?

The kind of world Grace, Fallen From inhabits is, of course, “this saddest of worlds.” The poet invites us to think about lunch as an event providing “an ocean of hope.”  Questioning her thoughts about the ordinary becomes Boruch’s strategy throughout this volume.
    Even when she takes on a subject as profound as “What God Knew,” in a poem of that title, her approach is tentative and questioning: “When God / knew nothing it was better, wasn’t it? / Not the color blue yet, its deep / unto black.  No color at all really . . ..”  And this is what she gives us in many poems—the creative sense of un-knowing.
    For Boruch, to think is to make a poem.  She does this in a seemingly off-hand manner.  In “Spring, in Five Parts,” she asks: “Can you think about thinking? / Can you take whatever passes there . . ..” The result is that her poems can appear as made-in-the-moment, their non-structured structure as fluid and unpredictable as the thought-process with all its detours, back-tracking and forays into the future. 
    “Ladder Against a House” is a prime example of her technique, its strengths and its limitations.  The poem begins with an off-hand assumption: “So someone climbed it.  But now / it’s dark.”  She enlarges the sense of the ladder by seeing it as a “trace / of the will to go up or / no, earth is / the welcoming place.” With only a slight echo of Frost’s “Birches,” the poem proceeds by ambiguity: “I’m walking by. / Or imagining I walked here.”  Wherever she is, the speaker considers various reasons for the ladder being left leaning against the house.  She can’t know this, so then simply looks at the ladder as object with rungs made of oak:

        As for the rungs,
        how an oak stood
        years, slowly shifting into the great arc
        of its falling.  Summer.  There was
        such a leaf stained
        by the next leaf, cooler in those
        woods, men shouting to be
        heard over the blistering
        racket of their saws.

One of the wonders of the art of Marianne Boruch is how she can extend an image or a metaphor, so that here we are no longer in a neighborhood looking at a ladder but in the woods.  Pursuing her metaphor, the poet allows herself to go wherever her mind takes her.  She acknowledges the problem with such waywardness: “But the tree’s / lost all contact with its story.”  Such a disconnect doesn’t bother her: “That’s the thing / about transformation.”  Losing contact (or direction) is not such a bad thing.  You may simply find yourself in a place (or a poem) you could never have imagined.
    As a result, we must not expect to be guided through a coherent world, to be dazzled or coddled.  The moments she chooses are ultra-ordinary—waking up in the morning, for example, as she does in “Seven Aubades for Summer.”  Here is a typical passage from day one:

        I read the roof next door.  I read
        the shingles, their stony
        overlap, the stubborn look
        my grandmother gave me: I won’t
        walk that street.  I hate
        those people.  But she didn’t
        say that.

In gazing at the shingles of a neighbor’s roof, “their stony overlap,” she is reminded of the stoniness of her grandmother and her habits of speech.  Then there’s the reversal: “she didn’t say that.”  Of course, our memories are constantly evading us, or lying to us, bedeviling us.  In writing her poems, Marianne Boruch brings her attentiveness to the workings of the mind.  Given the sharpness of her observations, her best poems achieve remarkable understandings. “The Deer” is one of those.
    The title of the poem melds into the first lines (a frequent tactic): “The deer / are tentative.”  Then she adds, “Of course.  To be an animal / is to watch.  Is to think / about eating all the time.  I watch them / be so watchful.” In these brief off-hand lines, she establishes a connection between herself and the deer in front of her window.  Attentive to her verse, we pick up on the motif of thinking—not necessarily about food, but thinking about thinking.  She draws us into her process:

        When I saw the deer,
         I was beginning to type, not
        it came to me, full of: I made this.

Her thought is fragmented.  The deer divert her attention and she writes about them “all so thin” and then, “They’re gone. Because beauty’s / not generous, isn’t anything / but its passage.”  
    Boruch’s rambling method brings her to the poem’s understanding: in the world of “grace, fallen from,” beauty passes.  It’s an understanding worthy of a Keats but in a distinctly 21st-century mode: off-hand, but attentive and achieved.  She’s won that statement through the process of her poem.  Released from [her] promise, Marianne Boruch, the mature poet, embraces a modernist poetic.

Grace, Fallen From, Marianne Boruch. Wesleyan University Press, 2008. ISBN: 0819568635  $22.95

© by Claire Keyes


Contributor's note
Next page
Table of contents
VPR home page

[Best read with browser font preferences set at 12 pt. Times New Roman]