Saturday, January 26, 2013

Inventing Constellations: Al Maginnes

I first heard the expression "to subvert the reader's expectations" as a goal of writing poetry from Suzanne Buffam in a craft class on collage and collaboration at Columbia College Chicago. It seemed then, and still does, a delightful way of expressing the element of surprise accomplished by many better poets, usually in a turn of an image or thought within the poem (or the manuscript), a path that one might not have been able to predict but, once followed, could not be imagined any other way and remain poetry. ("Do I contract myself?" says Whitman, "very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.")

Al Maginnes's latest collection, Inventing Constellations, is a book that entered my awareness from a very favorable review by Paul Scott August, so my expectations were high even before I had read the opening poem, "The Definitions." But I was totally unprepared for both the beauty and utility of the discreet blocks of text introducing seminal concepts and images, soon to be scattered like legos throughout the rooms of a family's home that could be your own--legos shaped not too dissimilar to the ones you can still purchase at any store, but different enough that the structures built with them could not be duplicated with the standard set.

Here are the first eight (out of seventeen) "verses" of "The Definitions:"

"This thing is for life," says the movie crime boss to the one just
inducted into "the family" in a spooky ritual involving blood and
candles. The only light burning in this room is the TV, the sound
turned low to let my family sleep. "For life," echoes the just made


The root of "family" is the Latin familia, which meant servants to a


My daughter brings home drawings of our family, the three of us
with arms protruding from our heads, eyes too large to blink.

Sometimes she colors her face darker because "I'm brown and
you're pink."


A blog I stumble across calls adoptive parents thieves. I type nine
paragraphs in reply, delete them all.


A family is music: Kingston Trio songs sung off-key, a father's
favorite radio station, the soundtrack to South Pacific. It's "turn that

down" and "you call that music?" It is a mother and father in the kitchen
dancing to a song they forgot they loved.


In 1788 "family man" was slang for a thief.


A family is a flock of butterflies whispering over an afternoon
lawn, a herd of water buffalo knee-deep in river mud, a pride of
lions chewing soft meat.


Her first day with us, she wept so endlessly I would have called
back all the lawyers, the foster mother, erased the small mountain
of forms, wiped our faces from our passports to let her sleep quiet
in the place she knew. Now she asks the story of that day, prompts
us to insert details left out from the last telling until the story is
exactly as she wants to hear it.


With a title like Inventing Constellations, readers are forewarned that these poems will insert details left out from [some] telling, but I was not prepared for how powerful the poems would be with just a slight tweak to the details normally conveyed about our shared reality, a process that I compare to Maginnes's description of multiple universes in "The Consolation of Endless Universes:"

In one theory, there are universes
lined on either side of this one,
each such a slight variation
of its neighbor you have to squint
to see the difference, like a street
where my brother lived, its line
of white houses so alike I found
his house only be seeing his car.

But if you wander too many
universes beyond what you know,
you arrive somewhere you don't recognize
such as the universe where
your mother and father do not meet,
worlds of black skies and gods
more terribly present or absent than any
who claim dominion here.

Another theory says each decision
gives birth to a reality in which
a different decision was made,
a rainbow of universes erupting
from each gesture. Some of these
are too easy to imagine
like the one in which my best friend
from junior high is reading

about my arrests and the time
I will have to serve. I woke
a few mornings ago, his name
a smoke-wisp hanging in
the empty corridor of some dream.
A few minutes of clicking
through the internet showed me
the picture taken the last time

he went to prison. A list
of arrests and sentences told me
enough to fill in the years since
he and I shoplifted cigarettes.
The consolation of endless universes
is that somewhere he is living
a life that makes him as happy
as my life makes me, even while

I wonder again how I escaped,
how I am the one allowed to walk free
inside this, the one universe
where I can change anything.

By contrast, "Inventing Constellations" contains those poems that shine with light so horrific that we are barely able to bear them, bringing to mind Rilke's definition of beauty as being "the beginning of terror, that we are still able to bear," or Maginnes's own lines (from "Blindfold"): ". . . In this world,/beauty and terror coax the same tears,/the voice of fear has no words,/[where] the victim's face is a trophy."

Maybe the blindfold is not meant
as kindness for the condemned
like the choice of a final meal
or the last cigarette, a pleasure
meant to block awareness
of what's coming. Instead it keeps
the living from seeing how
the eyes throttle with light
or glaze at the moment of impact
before the body empties into death.
In this age of performance, even an autopsy,
final audition of the body's efficiency,
is theater. A TV doctor explains
how the flanges of the famous chest
are opened like curtains, the routines
of the reliable duo, systole and diastole,
the shuttle cocking of artery and vein,
the blood's drifting clouds of toxins
all are measured and named,
no chance for curtain call
or final bow. In the film
I found on the internet and watched
because I started and could not stop
the killers, not the condemned, wore masks.
He knelt before them as they read
their proclamations in a language
he was captive long enough to know
in fragments. His face a blank
of pure misery, glossed with sweat,
his hair twisted and on end,
some composure kept him still.
Perhaps he'd seen enough movies,
was American enough to believe
in last-second rescues, the hero
who kicks in the door, guns blazing.
Maybe he believed this
routine humiliation between
tea and afternoon prayers,
a ritual meant to be so frightening
that when water was thrown on him
or he was kicked, their laughter
let him breathe once more.
But the reading ended and one
of the masked men produced a long knife.
What followed was neither swift
nor spectacular. Bodies wrestled
across the floor. Deep inside the scrum
started noise too high-pitched to be a scream,
noise I'd never heard a human make.
When the head was displayed,
it was no longer human, but something
molded from plastic and left too long
in the back seat of a car on a hot day.
If you watch this once, you will not
watch it again. In this world,
beauty and terror coax the same tears,
the voice of fear has no words,
the victim's face is a trophy.
But morning still happens.
I get up, make coffee, walk the dog, things
I can do with my eyes closed.
Not until I read the paper or listen
to the news does the world take shape.
Some refuse the blindfold,
but most are grateful for darkness
granted by a cloth so ordinary
it might have dried last night's dishes,
then wiped the empty table free
of crumbs and ashes.

Buried in the deep-sky images of Maginnes's poems are the same points of light found in other poets' work: family, parenthood, work, survival, the cosmos, music, faith, jazz, birds, bridges, beauty, fear . . .

Like some ancient seer, however, Maginnes connects the dots as if for the first time, creating a mythos for the 21st century that embraces all histories, knowing that none of them will endure:

. . . if I've learned anything in this life, it's how easily
memory misfires, how what we thought safe forever

crumbles in slow flame, curls into husk of ash.
There is too much to remember. And each day enacts

its own erasures, a name wiped clean, an address gone
without our knowledge from the unlocked vault.

But if Maginnes can't find in his vision a place for permanence, he makes up for it with a lyrical intensity that is nothing less than astonishing:

I don't want to lose the face of my daughter confronting
her first mango at one, perched on a merry-go-round

at two. In the clouds might be as good a place as any
for things we love and can no longer touch,

but I want my hands here, on the things I love
a little while longer. Tonight, the moon, bright

as a token, a coin ripe for the amnesia
of the slot machine, hovers in a sky wiped

clear of clouds. And from somewhere, the long drone
of a place descending, a load of bodies delivered

to earth, visible a while loner, exhaling a sky
that has already forgotten they were there.

The first problem with "Inventing Constellations" is that when you begin underlining lines worth re-reading, or starring poems to share with fellow-poets, you end up with a book completely underlined and marked, unable to adequately share its value without duplicating it in its entirely. Like the constellations themselves, even a cursory knowledge of the book requires that every poem, every visible star, be viewed in relation to every other one. The second problem, if you're a poet, is that after reading this book, there are another 32 poems looking over your shoulder every time you sit down to write. Fortunately, instead of shrinking the possibilities, like the dark energy that mysteriously propels all matter outward at an every-increasing speed, Maginnes's magic leaves us with an expanded universe of creative possibilities, showing us multiple paths to subverting expectations as we invent our own constellations of of images and thoughts.

1 comment:

granddaddy said...

I think the act of subverting expectations is more disruptive and more significant than surprising. While I may be surprised at the way a poet sees or expresses in ways I did not anticipate, my expectations are tweaked a little, caught off guard, ah - this is it -revealed to me as my expectations, not as the way things are or have to be. Good poetry does that. Perhaps it must do that in order to be called "good". But that's another conversation.

Poetry that subverts my expectations goes farther. It undercuts my foundational way of seeing and of being in the world. It opens my eyes to the blindfold I have been wearing unaware as "a pleasure/ meant to block awareness/of what's coming. Instead it keeps/ the living from seeing how/ the eyes throttle with light/ or glaze at the moment of impact/ before the body empties into death." Poetry that subverts not only reveals my way of seeing to me; it reveals it as blindness. It turns my world around.

Consider the metaphor of inventing constellations. It suggests connecting familiar dots of light in new ways, putting lines in unexpected places that surprise and reveal. But this metaphor does not subvert. It connects light to light in a new way, but it does not invite me to see the dark between the stars, beyond them, before and after them. It does not show me the blindfold that my looking only to the light has become.

Am I reaching too hard here for connection with what has already begun to grasp me, or does this way of imaging it work: when the poet writes light into our darkness, we are surprised and our assumptions are revealed; when the poet writes darkness into our light, we are subverted and our assumptions are demolished.