Joanie Mackowski: Review by Ellen Miller-Mack


View from a Temporary Window by Joanie Mackowski (University of Pittsburgh Press)





Joanie Mackowski has a striking eye and she wants us to see almost as much as she wants us to feel. The inner life of her “I” is in the background. What matters is the wonderment beyond the “temporary window,” a window not blocked or smudged by baggage. There’s a current of urgency; the window is temporary because our lives are. These poems do seize the moment.

     “Prayer” opens the book, revealing much about the poet’s grateful, breathing mind. It thrives as a creature in a dynamic exchange with elements of earth, ocean and sky.


     That the hole in my skull never quite grows over

     with mosses or brick.  That no lover

     on a ladder can patch it, no permissive meadow

     can fold its field over.  For there’s too much to know.

     There’s too much to want to contain.

     That the backbone beanstalk shoots up through the tiny

     roof that I stand for, that I’m never too cluttered

     with mud to reflect: for the tongue grows tired

     of holding up the sky.  That the flood never fails,

     each puddle an ocean, each rise a falls,

     each salt breath coaxing new oxygen

     from the deeps’ own lungs.  That the skull bones join

     together as clouds, first easing out the storm

     then breaking apart.


     Mackowski is not a “representational writer” by Ira Sadoff’s definition in History Matters. Her work does not suffer from “fleeting illuminations of a heightened individual in a world where the individual ‘I’ has been rendered relatively powerless and the resulting work is often alienated, replete with stasis and resignation.” Instead, we have a poet who is very busy juxtaposing, transforming, exploring her intense curiosity and engaging in poetic cinematography. The self in these poems is acting as a window, playing with scale (“outside a car passes, glides its headlight down my arm”) masterfully, doing everything it does in the moment, with clarity. Her “self” is creating images with a camera, or multiple cameras, and we see what happens as it happens. Her “self” is a careful observer of phenomena and dynamic change. Her poems happen. There is even suspense, as the poet’s curiosity leads on.

     There are a handful of poems where the “I” turns the camera on herself with an emotional pitch, including poems written for the poet’s parents, and two (“Stalemate” and "Song”) which seem to be about a relationship with a spouse. These poems are different from the others in this volume, but just as beautifully written, and moving.  The presence of poems like these, however, gives me pause. It is a moment when I realize that the other poems in the volume are in constant motion, with layers of images telling stories dynamically. The more emotionally-based poems operate differently, pulling away a bit from the fabric of the volume.

     The title poem is moving and it moves.  In the first line Mackowski invites us to “follow the wrecking ball” (compared to a housefly hitting a window) as her old home is to be demolished and a new one to be built: “…In a year, in wingback chairs, / we’ll sit in the air // high above those tiny people strolling / the crumbling sill.” Will the new window sill begin crumbling so soon? Or is it the crumbling sill of the planet’s edge? Are the people tiny because “we” are superior? Probably not. The line simply demonstrates scale. We are in a familiar city, San Francisco, with a familiar landmark—“the Golden Gate’s / red seismograph.” But before that look into the future, other things are happening in the moment.  From the window we look through another window at a neighbor with a newspaper, and on the window images are superimposed on each other. There are orchids on a table beside a blueprint (the future) and from the future home, “the orchid’s reflection hovers with a flock of gulls.”  Throughout the book, there are superimposed images—of near and far, and reflections on glass.

     In “Vision” the poet brings us farther up the West Coast to Seattle’s Pike Street, where her ability to work with scale is particularly impressive.


     I walked down Pike Street and saw myself

     walking up.  Pike’s a steep hill; I first saw

     myself from three miles away, so small

     I fit on a fingertip.  This wasn’t just

     someone who looked like me; this was me—


     it was I.


     The poem ends:


     We crossed and diverged.  I would have preferred

     another vision, say of the gossamer fissure

     in the corneal membrane that gilds

     us together, to peer out through that.


     Through the window of herself she sees her two selves, although she would prefer otherwise. She “walked with a clear // grasp of truth and personal responsibility.” Throughout the poem she moves without stopping; she is walking. The poem is dynamic and unpredictable, without confessional or post-confessional tones or resolution.

     Similarly, in “Sunday” we encounter a dislocated self:


     not a

     self here at home, just waves of ha

     and oooh, old patterns

     of interpenetration and callous

     sunlight: a swirl of cells blossomed from the collision

     of two gametes turns


and later in the poem: “all I want is a good clean view—.” The poet’s desire for a clean window from which to observe life is what she wants for the reader, and clarity is what we get.  

     There are amusing transformations and odd yet completely nonviolent dismemberings and exchanges of body parts in a few poems, and there are two vivid poems written from inside the body. In “1,080 Photographs of My Nose (a CT scan of my sinuses),” the poet is not mentally present as the CT progresses. She writes that “they” see: “Crows circle down from their perches // in the oaks while frame after frame uproots / another black-wrapped bulb from the riot // of my skull.” Is she disassociated from the experience or simply engaging her formidable imagination?

     In “The Larger,” the speaker falls, with “one dislocated arm / wedged between two houses,” and when she wakes, “a crew of about fifty / was winding a stairway beside my breast / and buttressing a platform on my sternum.” What is so enjoyable about this poem is its cinematic quality. A man who enters her ear is never seen again, and she has a lighthouse on one of her toes. It is not a predictable extended metaphor about pain, but a playful and highly imaginative exploration of scale and transformation, suggestive of Swift’s Gulliver.

     Mackowski’s images are organic surprises, not stand-ins for the poet’s emotional state. They are not narrative in the traditional sense, although the poem “Case Studies in Metamorphosis” tells action-packed stories which could appear allegorical, but instead they are highly associative as one extraordinary event leads to another. This is not H.D.’s imagism, but perhaps a new-millennial offspring.

     View from a Temporary Window is a window into imagination. It takes us on a journey through landscapes and bodyscapes made of words, and sits us down in front of a clean window to observe and ponder what there is to see close up and far into the distance.



Ellen Miller-Mack has completed an MFA in Poetry at Drew University. She is also a nurse practitioner at a community health center in Springfield, MA.