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Contemporary Poetry and Poetics


Review of Margot Schilpp's First Book of Poetry



Throughout this book, the author thrills us with unexpected phrases 
as startling as a sharp thunderbolt in the middle of a sunny afternoon

Margot Schilpp's first book, The World's Last Night, is divided into three parts. In the first, the poet questions many things with the curiosity of a child who uses imagination to provide the answers. She seems to be in a hurry, going from sky to bird to food to love, eager to cover everything.
     It has often been said that there is nothing new under the sun, but Margot Schilpp takes that hurdle with ease by dressing her thoughts in fresh language, thus finding ways to present her surroundings in an original way. With the first poem, "Red-Winged Blackbird," she instantly pulls us into her thought patterns and her way of viewing the world:

          The barbed wire bends across the field
          like a hair out of place, though not exactly.
          The platinum sky is bleak and it weeps: gray
          all day isn't the only way of grieving.
          Longing is a knife that blunts itself 

          on the dull muscle of the heart. . . .

          Who pointed out the beautiful markings of birds?
          Summer's curtain draws across, red-winged
          blackbirds weave into the fence, drag
          a crimson thread across the eye.

     Probing whatever she sees or feels, Schilpp presents interesting ideas: "A bomb is just a miracle turned backwards, / a map only a suggestion — box of lines." From the outset, the author puts us into a sort of suspense, conditioning us to read on lest we miss something essential. In "Proper Subjects" she tells us, "There is sassafras tea steeping / on the porch, a wide-planked affair clamping / three sides of the house that absorbs / the whole family's secrets." Aware of the curiosity she has just aroused in us, she goes on to explain why she chose not to disclose any of those secrets. "The world / doesn't want to know anyway, everyone / hustles to set up the folding chairs." 
     Throughout this book, the author thrills us with unexpected phrases as startling as a sharp thunderbolt in the middle of a sunny afternoon. In "Poem With Hidden Meanings That, as a Child, You Always Feared" she interrupts an idyllic setting with a comment on nature's cruelty: ". . . the animal / sees you stuffing your kids' throats / with hot dogs; the animal takes / a finger from your child's hand." She uses a similar approach in "Manifesto," a poem which was included in the recent anthology American Diaspora: Poetry of Displacement (University of Iowa Press): 

          To love something
          you must have considered what it means
          to do without. You must have thought

          about it—the coefficient of the body
          is another body—but do not forget
          that there are people who are willing

          to staple your palm to your chest.

     For a while at least, the poet seems fascinated by fire, which is mentioned in a number of poems at the beginning of the book: ". . . beauty, another hard-to-capture fuel / that burns when you bring it close to fire." ["On the Nature of Amber"]  "Why not cast the doused rag, the straw, / the old lump of your heart / into the flames and see what catches fire?" ["Auto-Pilot"]  "Maybe it's not too late / to reconstruct the burning." ["Proper Subjects"]  "Somewhere a pianist warms her hands / by a fire, holds the morning,. . . You can turn me into ash — / hold me until I become transparent." ["Poem With Hidden Meanings"]
     Fire is also mentioned in "When Brains Consider the Future," where the author compares herself with pigeons that have settled in on windowsills of the bomb-proof building where she lives, as if they required something strong and indestructible to support their nests. "There's no way / to rid ourselves of them / and it's been tried — ­ pesticides, / noise, fire — ­ they resettle / themselves calmly back on the nest, / and I am counting their eggs."  Schilpp acknowledges that she, too, needs something to rely on: ". . . and in a way, / I, too, refuse to leave, am walking / toward it in nothing but / my belted raincoat to meet my future / husband."
     Calling her awareness "Obsessional," the author describes herself as "obsessed with corn, and the husks / of corn, with the yellow of bees / and pineapples and lemons."  When on a train, she is "obsessed / with the train, with strange murmurings / and steel that bends around sound."  She concludes, "I have become / obsessed with drama: I walk among / the dynamite and hydrangea, and live." 
     The poems in the second section seem calmer, more reflective.  One has the sense that the poet has gained insights from past experiences, and drawn certain conclusions about various aspects of her life, and life in general. 
     We meet Margot at age six, accompanied by her family, in the poem "One Sunday Each Spring."  Dressed up in pink gingham and patent leather shoes, she has brought along an empty Easter basket to be filled with daffodils that are growing in an untilled field she describes as "a yellow cathedral."  But as always, this yearly adventure leaves her with mixed emotions.  Although she squeals with delight at the eerie squeak as her hand slides down the stems, she is disappointed that these glorious blooms have no fragrance.
     At age 14, she abandons her piano lessons in favor of riding a horse, in the ring and on the trails, one of them leading to a pig farm that in summer "smelled almost evil."  In later years, after someone close to her has died, she turns for solace to a river, or the idea of a river which "cleans the landscape and the soul."  The soothing sound of water flowing past frees the imagination as well.  "There are possibilities / you've never considered: winter / is a heat so cold it warms you. / Love is a method to learn pain." 
     In "A Nap Sounded Good," we find her relaxing on the sofa, dreaming of generations of peoples in exotic places, like Egypt and Japan, who worked harder than she would have been willing or able to work, at skills with which she is not familiar.  But she doesn't see herself doing any of that: "It's more my vision that I helped invent / something; Linear B, a method / for weaving palm frond mats, / impressed brick, Greek coins, delicate ink, / a way to harness fire, the wheel." 
     Toward the end of the book, the poet has adjusted her expectations.  What some of us may take as negatives, she simply accepts.  "One trouble / with always is now, how / a body turns from itself," she muses in "A Very Short History of Everything."  And as if to answer someone who is complaining about life, she adds, "Go back / to what came before, the corset, / the arrow, rancid meat hanging / in a square. Is this / where you want to live and die?" 
     Despite her realistic outlook, the author is not immune to lamenting progress and the passage of time.  But she yields to what she cannot change. "Things are already / the shapes they want to be," she observes in the poem "On the Natures of Matter and Time," and continues, 

          Once something
          breaks apart, it's a new thing, forever
          and ever, until it breaks apart again
          into something else. It's no use dividing
          the world into broken and unbroken, whole
          and part, healthy and sick. It's no use
          crying: your tears become drops. Just water.

     Like most of us, Schilpp has come to realize that basically we are pawns unable to circumvent our fate, regardless of our plans, goals and wishes. And she is not reluctant to acknowledge this:

          One by one we are called
          and we go, but I can see,

          even with the image of hypnotic light
          that paralyzes me when my eyes close:
          another day is gone.

          It is; It isn't.
          One of these is true.
          I thirst, there is no water.

          Mind the oases of desire that fling
          themselves at your throat, butterflies
          committing suicide against your throat.

                                   . . . How much 
          can it hurt to swallow 

          loss?  I looked and was burned,
          a heliotrope turning to track
          the sun across my mind,

          wanting it 
          to heat me so that I didn't
          burn from the inside out. 
                    ["Poem from Across the Country"]

The World's Last Night is a journey that takes us out of ourselves and then brings us safely back.  Margot Schilpp writes with authority in a clear, steady voice. She knows what she wants to say, and she finds new and interesting ways to say it, engaging the reader's full attention.  I look forward to her next book, and I wish her continued success.

Schilpp, Margot. The World's Last Night.  Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2001.  ISBN: 0-8874834-8-8  $12.95 

© by Marianne Poloskey


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