Something Coming Apart
In the house
where too much has happened
a boy is dreaming
He builds it piece
by piece, builds
the possibility of it,
the die-cut components he carefully removes
from their plastic frame,
then glues together, holding them steady.
It is painstaking work.
He is bent over the table
in the dim half-light,
the small shoulders, the dark head dipped
He works steadily
for hours. He works steadily for days
with little sleep, eating when he can.
At last it rises from the clutter,
the airplane with its body gull-white
to a single purpose.
The boy, now older,
lies in a room stinking
of sedatives and sour sheets,
air that's been enclosed for too long.
Outside it is daylight. Students crisscross
a wide lawn littered
with dead leaves.
He is awake, but does not speak,
the same small shoulders, the dark head turned
toward the wall. He has been like this
for days, sleeping a lot, eating when he can.
When I got the call the doctor said
would have to come quickly,
that arrangements would have to be made.
They'd found him on the top floor
of the science building, where the windows
are permanently sealed, standing
as the dreary gulls circled
the parking lot below,
looking for garbage.
Upstairs in the infirmary guest room
the narrow bed is too hard. I lie awake
for hours. I lie awake for days.
Earlier I overheard the nurse asking:
Where is the mother? The father?
Something fails to translate. Something
is coming apart as I speak.
The huge moon looming outside
my window is too brilliant. It hurts me.
My brother, tell me how we failed you.
As we settle in around the long table laden
with Virginia ham and sweet tomato relish,
as we slice into the pink meat, spear
the asparagus, corn on the cob steeping
in a yellow slick, each node emitting a strange
radiance; as we move through this meal
in a kind of narcosis, lifting the food to our mouths
it is with us, casting its glittering reticulum, spreading
along blood vessels, then slowing a little where
it has entered the pale firm flesh of his brain.
Later we'll scrape our plates into the garbage pail,
nothing resembling what it once was, the pears
we brought already beginning to bruise in their bowl.
To Her Body
Of water. Of sub-
Fire. Limbs charred
and smoking. Of
on the azaleas-its
brittle purity. Indigo,
celadon. Bitter green
and gingko. Of
hunger and the one
long scar. Of womb.
Bone shard. Heartache.
Mud and clay. Of stone.
Loneliness. The child's
cry, unanswered. Of
want and despair.
Of salt. Blood-blood
on silk, on lacquer.
Of dusk. Irises. Fog
in the cedars. Of fog.
Fog and absence.
-from The Darkened Temple
BIO: Born in Kobe, Japan to a Japanese mother and a French Canadian-American father, Mari L'Esperance was awarded a Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry for her full-length collection The Darkened Temple, published by the University of Nebraska Press in September 2008. An earlier collection, Begin Here, was awarded a Sarasota Poetry Theatre Press Chapbook Prize. With Tomás Q. Morin, she has edited Coming Close: Forty Essays on Philip Levine, forthcoming in 2013 from Prairie Lights Books, an imprint of the University of Iowa Press.
L'Esperance's poems and prose have appeared or are forthcoming in Beloit Poetry Journal, Many Mountains Moving, Poetry Kanto, Prairie Schooner, the Prairie Schooner Book Prize Tenth Anniversary Reader, Salamander, Zocalo Public Square, and elsewhere and her poems have been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize.
Her reviews have been published in Seattle's International Examiner, Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, and Pirene's Fountain. A graduate of the Creative Writing Program at New York University and a recipient of awards from the New York Times, New York University, Hedgebrook, and Dorland Mountain Arts Colony, L'Esperance lives in Los Angeles.
A “Mini-Review” of Mari L'Esperance's Featured Poems by Contributing-Editor Aaron Bauer
I am overjoyed that I am able to offer some thoughts on the excellent work of Mari L'Esperance. In the three poems here—which come from her book The Darkened Temple—L'Esperance evinces her preoccupation with sound and image. She makes use of potent anaphora and seductive alliteration to describe scenes, people, and emotions in a manner that is simultaneously familiar and distancing. Her work uses a lyric intensity with a narrative flow to investigate themes of religion and family.
In “Something Coming Apart,” we begin with an ironic description of something being built—a model airplane. The vague beginning of the poem—set in a “house / where too much has happened”—creates a mysterious aura and invites a reader to speculate, possibly filling in details from his or her own life to fill out the boy's narrative. What is the purpose of this image of a boy with “small shoulders” and a “dark head” breaking plastic pieces out of their model and “painstakingly” assembling them? Why is the child devoting his time and energy to this project? What is he distracting himself from? We know that the airplane has “a single purpose”; however, given the title and the fact that we never see this plane being used, flight is most certainly not the goal.
We could end on the lines “honed / to a single purpose” and have a beautiful poem; since the book version of this poem has a strategic page break here, I suspect many readers of the print edition are surprised to see the poem does not end here.
Continuing on, we see this boy years later, where he is again described as dark-headed and small-shouldered, and we have the revelation that this boy is not just any boy but, in fact, the speaker's brother. We are given the opportunity to reinterpret the childhood events as destructive rather than constructive. We feel the looming absence of the father and mother as the speaker reclines on a hard narrow bed.
But L'Esperance's work does not thrive on narrative alone; a fine-tuned sonic quality works to paint the scene. For example, the harsh alliteration of the line “stinking / of sedatives and sour sheets” hits the reader deep in the gut, leaving us instinctively pinching our nostrils shut before we remember—wait—this is poetry not a scratch-n-sniff book. With such sly moves, the poet masterfully hooks readers and thrusts us into the world of the poem.
In no poem does she better achieve this goal than in “To Her Body.” Here, we are confronted with an elegiac lyric, meditating on juxtaposed images that work to construct the body this poem addresses. The heavy use of anaphora provides a continuity that pulls the reader through the poem's disjunctions in much the same way a liturgy at a funeral service might serve as a coping mechanism for the bereaved. The staccato fragments leave us, to a certain extent, on our own to make sense of the images and ideas the poem presents.
I say to “a certain extent” because—while the act of constructing meaning rests with the reader—every syllable of this poem is strategically employed. Beneath the guise of discontinuity resides a force that guides the reader's every step. For example, the opening two stanza of the poem,
Of water. Of sub-
Fire. Limbs charred
give us no body—as one might expect in a poem titled “To Her Body.” Through these images, however, we construct a narrative. We remember that the human body is itself primarily water, but that water is hidden within us. We naturally think of fire, water's opposite. Then, we think of tree branches, “limbs” being consumed by fire, but then—remembering the poem's title—reinterpret this line. Do we envision a cremation in progress? Do we picture a loved one's hand protruding from hell's flames in some Dantesque torment?
It is the curse and the blessing of the short poetic line to compress language until every word must linger on the tongue like it is the last word one might speak. These lines make me want to spend hours contemplating all the possible ways to read “limbs.”
The closing stanzas repeat and recontextualize images and phrases to build to the poem's epiphanic moment:
Of dusk. Irises. Fog
in the cedars. Of fog.
Fog and absence.
Like the repeated resolutions from dominant to tonic at the end of the first movement of Beethoven's second symphony, the oscillations here between fog and absence pound readers and delay any resolution they may not be prepared for—but desperately need. And the separation of the couplet that concludes this poem forces a reader to linger on the harsh sibilants presented in the word “absence.”
L'Esperance's constrained passion and musical ear provide her poems with a depth that allows readers of all types of poetry with something to engage in. Especially in her narrative poems, she is able to create a world rich enough for readers to dive in and explore. Her work is a delight for the ears, eyes, and mind.
A Review of The Darkened Temple by Anne Harding Woodworth first published by Poets’ Quarterly
Metaphor is the mortar in Mari L’Esperance’s beautifully laid-out book, The Darkened Temple. The temple is many places, and they are always dark.
These places embody countless integrated dichotomies: the visible and the invisible, insecurity and safety, the end and the beginning, arrival and departure, the possible and impossible, belonging and not belonging, the distance and intimacy between a mother and daughter. These are the themes the poet visits in this compelling collection, winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry.
If metaphor is the mortar, search makes up the temple’s building blocks. And the search as content closes around us. Dark metaphorical places drift in and out of L’Esperance’s poems, as she searches for her mother, “who refused to be found, disappearing/the way she did, without a trace—.” The first darkened temple we encounter is among the caves in Japan, where the poet’s mother in her youth had hid with many others during air raids. Now the caves continue to exhale “the unspeakable”:
The damp press of strange bodies in darkness
rank with the stench of war’s leavings,
only imagine a young girl’s cries drowned in the tumult,
urgent groping of unseen hands—
We find another darkened temple in “Prayer,” in which the poet beseeches an unnamed force in the imperative to dredge the metaphorical deep for memory. And later in “Map of the World” she says, “. . . humans have lost their way / in the deepening darkness. . . .”
“Prayer” leads us inexorably into the memory poems of Part Two, in which the poet remembers moments of her life and the dreams she has had of her mother. The darkened temple appears in various iterations, and in “The Last Time I Saw Her,” the mother returns to
with its silence,
the ineffectual man,
the bruises spreading
their dark stains.
And the darkened temple is also the mind: “In the mind there are rooms / we dare not inhabit.” In “The Dark House” the mother cries out: “I am the dark house and the dark house is me.”
In “Finding My Mother,” which is one of several dream poems, the mother is seen lying face down in a field.
. . . carry her back, I hear myself say,
as if the words spoken aloud, even in a dream,
will somehow make it possible.
And it is indeed the very words of these poems that have carried this mother back and brought peace to the poet, “as if quiet were the last safe place.” In spite of the enormous distance between mother and daughter, at times the two women are indistinguishable:
The missing are restless. They wander
between two worlds and belong to neither.
In the season of roubai, she does not answer.
How does it begin and where does it end?
What I mean to say is: There is
no fathomable point of entry—
What I mean to say is: she was of this world
and then she was not.
L’Esperance uses language with a basic grace. There is no anger. It is a simple, practical language that perfectly conveys complicated, psychological longings and observations. Her part-Japanese heritage is beautifully integrated into many of these poems with a consummate subtlety.
“The self is a house,” L’Esperance writes. The self is the darkened temple. Searching for her mother, the poet is looking for herself.
An Interview with Mari L'Esperance by Jenna Bazzell and Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Jenna Bazzell and Andrew McFadyen-Kecthum: The second line of the poem "Something Coming Apart" is "where too much has happened." There is something wonderfully suggestive about this line that leaves much to the imagination. Why did you not give this line more detail? Why be so suggestive here?
Mari L'Esperance: For the sake of full disclosure, I subconsciously lifted this line from Adrienne Rich, whose book An Atlas of the Difficult World I was reading at the time: "I know you are reading this poem / in a room where too much has happened for you to bear" [from "(Dedications)"].
Suggestiveness, when done well, is so much more evocative in a poem than literal explication and allows space for the reader to summon her/his own imaginings, thus enjoying a richer relationship with the poem. In my own reading I tend to favor poems written in watercolor rather than graphite-the liminal, the layers of meaning underlying what's not overtly stated, lend a poem its power. Too much obfuscation, of course, accomplishes the opposite effect. It's a tricky balance.
JB & AMK: By addressing the male character in the poem "Something Coming Apart" as "a boy," the speaker creates distance between the male character and himself/herself. It is not until the ends of the poem that readers know the male character is the speaker's brother. What is the purpose of creating this distance?
ML: As with suggestion versus too much information, distance creates space to be. If we think of the poem as a living organism that breathes and pulses in the space between poet and reader, it's important to give it just enough attention, but also plenty of room so that its mystery, which is its power, is protected (big for me). In much of (what's popularly known as first-person "confessional" poetry), I find the too-close immediacy of the speaker's experience can feel claustrophobic, suffocating. Which is, of course, where diction, line breaks, white space, even persona-in other words, craft!-help to provide necessary distance and containment. Again, too much distance and you've lost your reader, stamped out the poem's heart. There's also the issue of mining autobiography as material for poetry, which is fine to do, and we all do it, but the question is, how are you going to transform it so that it speaks in a universal way?
JB & AMK: In this poem you oftentimes break your lines with a prepositional phrase where the line opens in a preposition. What effect do you think this has on the poem?
ML: You may be disappointed, but I hadn't even noticed this. This is one of the earliest poems in the book, so it's difficult to remember my process of composition... but, as with all my poems, I believe I was very conscious of pacing, feeling my way forward, utilizing my ear and eye to intuit where to break the lines. I suppose the effect is one of halting yet deliberate progression, a kind of staggered descent-the reader knows s/he is being taken somewhere, and it's going to be hard going. At least that's my hit looking back at it now.
JB & AMK: There is a great deal of emphasis placed on the single word line "someone" here. What effect on the poem does this single word line have, and is the vagueness of "someone" intentional for a poem that seems to rely so much on the male character and the "I"?
ML: The isolation of the word "someone" lends it a kind of urgency. Who will help? Who's available to help? Anyone? No one? If you consider the poem in its entirety, the speaker is alone in her dilemma-"Where is the mother? The father?"-and having the single word "someone" inhabit its own line enhances the speaker's sense of desperation and isolation.
JB & AMK: In "Diagnosis," you repeat the phrase "as we" three times. The use of this phrase thrusts the poem forward before it turns in the eighth line, much like a volta in a sonnet. Do you mind discussing this form with us?
ML: I wasn't consciously thinking about any particular form as I wrote, although I appreciate the suggestion; you're giving me more credit than I deserve! The likely scenario (again, working from memory): I was building tension in those first lines, layering on successive images (and it doesn't take the reader long to figure out that something's terribly wrong) to create a particular tone, a mood of apprehension and dread and resignation. The "diagnosis" itself is never named, which was intentional. As for using "as we" three times: repetition is a favorite device of mine, and here I implement it to emphasize the poem's thematic concerns, incorporate sonic pleasure, and slow the reader down so s/he can "digest" (no pun intended) what's unfolding in the poem.
JB & AMK: The pronoun "it" is used four times in the poem "Diagnosis" and never seems to have a definable referent. Is this intentional? What are you going for here?
ML: Absolutely intentional. If I'd named the "it," the poem would have lost its mystery and shrunk, metaphorically, by half its size. We can intuit what the "it" might be, which is what I prefer; enough detail is provided in the title and in a couple of telling lines. Too much naming and you've got a flat poem. Again, it's a tricky balance because if I'd insisted on being too withholding, the poem would be less effective.
JB & AMK: You use particularly strong verbs in this poem, verbs that, perhaps, form a greater context of the poem, e.g. "spreading/ along blood vessels, then slowing a little where / it has entered the pale firm flesh of his brain." Are you just a fan of strong verbs or is there a connection being made here?
ML: I'm a fan of language and use whatever language and arrangement of that language I need in order to meet my objectives, and I often don't know what those objectives are until the poem's close to finished. I'm mostly just making my way, step by step, in the dark.
JB & AMK: The lines in "To Her Body" are truncated and don't form an actual, full sentence-all seem to be prepositional fragments. What effect did you want to have by only using prepositional phrases?
ML: As in "Something Falling Apart," I was concerned with pacing when I wrote "To Her Body". Pacing is so critical to a poem's success, something my former teacher Jane Mead emphasized, and amply demonstrates in her own work. Back to my poem: this is difficult stuff I'm writing about; I didn't want to shove it down the reader's throat in a rush, but rather introduce it to her/him slowly, in measured stages. The poem's construction is akin to a ladder with loose rungs-the reader must step carefully and deliberately, pausing in partial light cast by a flickering bulb to get the lay of the land before continuing the descent into the poem.
JB & AMK: There is quite a bit of repetition in this poem. Particularly towards the end, you repeat the words "blood-blood" that seems to start this repetition and then "fog" is repeated three times within three lines and "absence" repeated twice within two lines. Why use so much this repetition, specifically these three?
ML: As I said earlier, I love repetition-it's wonderfully effective in a poem if used sparingly, and strategically. If used too much, of course, it detracts rather than enhances. An accretion of feeling and image is what I was after here. The poem is titled "To Her Body"-a mother's body that is unavailable to the speaker because her mother has gone missing. I needed to find a way to convey the speaker's sense of utter despair and hopelessness in the wake of irretrievable, inexplicable loss.
JB & AMK: You also use very few commas in "To Her Body." When you do use them, they seem to come in the place of the "to be" verb "is," exemplary in lines like "Indigo, celadon," "The child's / cry, unanswered," and "Blood-blood / on silk, on lacquer." What was the impulse behind using the comma in this way and what overall affect do you think it has on the fragment construction you've developed here?
ML: Again, it's all about pacing. I wish I had a more sophisticated response for you, but I don't!
JB & AMK: Much of the book from which these poems come, The Darkened Temple, is about your mother's disappearance. Or, I should say, the disappearance of the speaker's mother. Assuming these poems are based on your life, what was it like writing this book? How did you manage to set down so much tragedy and grief and story and lyric without losing control or becoming sentimental? What was like sharing that with, for the most part, an unknown audience?
ML: Yes, the central concern of my book is the unsolved disappearance of my mother in 1995. My hope, however, is that autobiography has been transmuted into another register, one that transcends the narrowness of the self. I don't think I could have begun to approach this material in poems without control and judicious use of distance. As for sharing it with "an unknown audience," I had my anxieties, to be sure, mostly because I felt (perhaps irrationally) concerned that I was heaping too much darkness onto my readers, as if I was responsible in some way for their response to my work. As with many things in life, with time and distance, these feelings have dissipated and I've let go of the poems enough to allow them to make their own way, unburdened by my hopes and expectations for them.
Thank you, Andrew and Jenna, for allowing me to participate in this interview, in which I've been invited to consider my poems in new ways.