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Edges of Selfhood

ISSUE:  Summer 2017

<i>Magdalene</i>. By Marie Howe. Norton, 2017. 96p. HB, $25.95.

<i>In Full Velvet</i>. By Jenny Johnson. Sarabande, 2017. 72p. HB, 4.95.<i>Milk Black Carbon</i>. By Joan  Naviyuk Kane. Pittsburgh, 2017. 72p. PB, 5.95.

Perhaps poets are attracted to edges because, as Anne Carson puts it in Eros the Bittersweet, “Words…have edges. So do you,” and perhaps also because notions of the self tend to form in response to and because of those limits. Identity—what Emily Dickinson called the “Campaign inscrutable / Of the interior”—has always concerned the lyric poet, but what might constitute a “self” has perhaps never been more prevalent on the public radar than in our current moment. In three new, mercurial books—Magdalene, by Marie Howe; In Full Velvet, by Jenny Johnson; and Milk Black Carbon, by Joan Naviyuk Kane —poets resist, succumb to, and transgress the identities—familial, social, ecological, biological, sexual—to which they attend.

The opening poem of Howe’s Magdalene, “Before the Beginning,” steps directly into vexed notions of selfhood by evoking the great biblical poem of mystery and identity, Psalm 139:

Thou knowest me right well; my frame was not hidden from thee, / when I was being made in secret, intricately wrought in the depths of the earth. / Thy eyes beheld my unformed substance; in thy book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.

Howe writes:

Was I ever virgin?

Did someone touch me before I could speak?


Who had me before I knew I was an I?


So that I wanted that touch again and again

Without knowing who or why or from whence it came?

What follows in Magdalene is an extended meditation on the false and true “I”: on the costs of and compensations for foregoing the familiarity and protection of the former and opening up to the vulnerabilities of the latter. To speak of false and true selves, of course, is another way to speak about love, the central theme and preoccupation of this book: “Can the body love beyond hunger? /…/ Can we love without greed?” the speaker asks in one of the collection’s two poems titled “The Teacher,” “Without wanting to be first?” Howe, forthright as ever, richly complicates her foray into this terrain of identity by conflating the experiences of her twenty-first-century speaker—middle-aged mother, survivor of abuse and depression, and lover—with those of another narrator whose experiences resemble those of Mary Magdalene. Magdalene, a figure from the New Testament, was a follower of Jesus (and considered by some to have been more to him than friend and student), a woman granted, by grace, the chance to shed one identity (prostitute) for another (woman free to learn and to love by choice). 

Illuminating Magdalene are the provocative ways in which the various players and scenarios seem to turn into and transform one another. For example, the speaker in “The Affliction”—who has, after a long period of depression, and perhaps mourning, stopped taking the mind- and soul-numbing medications that have apparently helped her cope “for Months”—begins, in moments, to find herself “inside looking out” instead of seeing herself from the outside, “as if I were someone else.” Encountering an old friend, the narrator tells us:

: suddenly I was in: and I saw him,


and he: (and this was almost unbearable)

he saw me see him,


and I saw him see me.


He said something like, You’re going to be ok now,

or, It’s been difficult hasn’t it,


but what he said mattered only a little.

Abruptly, the speaker is back inside her own mind and body, not in her old skin but in a new place, “a third place I’d not yet been.” The reader finds this sea change of the inner life occur in another pair of poems, “Magdalene: The Woman Taken in Adultery” and “Magdalene: The Next Day.” In the first, the speaker turns from a woman whose life is about to end by stoning into a person who realizes that “someone is about to push you, someone you know / and then they don’t.” In the second poem, the narrator, saved, writes:

The world that would have gone on without me

bargained and clattered


and I walked where I wanted, free of the pretense of family now,

belonging to no one


back to the place where he’d bent and written in the dust.

Howe alludes here to the one time in the Gospels that we see Jesus writing; what is written “wasn’t there any more, / but he was.” As when the “friend” in “The Affliction” speaks to the narrator, whatis actually said matters less than the moment of witnessing oneself. The grace with which a self can be “converted,” in the broadest human sense, resonates in “The Adoption: When the Girl Arrived”: 

She took me from the place in the center where it was quiet,

where time falls as sunlight through a gauze curtain


 and the animal in me slept and dreamed and stirred

(—a sleeping animal, running)

The girl the adult speaker once was, whose father repeatedly abused her, is echoed in the rebellious, intelligent, beloved daughter of the middle-aged narrator. The mother’s experience of girlhood is intrinsically bound to her acknowledgment and recognition of distinct selves, her daughter’s and her own, as in “The Girl at 3”:

The girl is in love with the letter M.

M, she says quietly to herself—smiling at the thought of it.

M, she says, out loud.


(The book I’m reading says that what we have to do,

within ourselves, to learn to read—creates a self,

but when we’ve created that self we’ve created an edge

that separates us from the world we long for…

In this poem, the speaker admits that “the interiority we create by reading is rich and lonely.” The poem dilates into a meditation on the books held by the Virgin Mary in Western depictions of the Annunciation: 

Mary couldn’t read, and so—according to the book I’m reading

—didn’t have a self,

not as we know it.

And yet, “M! she shouts, in the way she shouts Home! / when we arrive there.” (M: Mother, Marie, Mary, Magdalene.) Similarly, the speaker visiting a grave in “Magdalene at the Grave,” in which the speaker kneels in the rain at the burial site of someone she has lost, and laughs, is at once Magdalene at the empty tomb and the speaker mourning a lost friend. But she is also, perhaps, an adult daughter experiencing afresh the freedom to renew in the wake of the death of a traumatizing father who is no longer alive to cause her harm:

The tears I wept then were not tears of grief.

How many times must it happen before I believe?

Lest anyone doubt that the subject of Magdalene is the discovery of the true self and of the necessity of letting go of control, pain, and fame in favor of the currencies of real love, generosity, and reciprocity, the final poem, “One Day,” calls out clearly to Walt Whitman’s famous “Song of Myself” (a poem which may start with “I” but ends with “you”): “One day … // all of it will go on without me. I’ll have disappeared, / … and the I that caused me so much trouble? Nowhere.” The poet continues, recalling a coin Whitman “carried in his pocket all the way to that basement // bar on Broadway that isn’t there anymore,”

Oh to be in Whitman’s pocket, on a cold winter day,


To feel his large warm hand slide in and out, and in again.

To be taken hold of by Walt Whitman! To be exchanged!


To be spent for something somebody wanted and drank and found delicious.

Like the poet-priest Gerard “Gentle Hop” Hopkins—who serves as the inspiration for “Dappled Things,” the opening poem of her debut collection—Jenny Johnson knows that the sensory realm, when attention is closely paid, can be articulated as a form of the self and what it desires. In his “Comments on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola,” Hopkins wrote, “My selfbeing, my consciousness and feeling of myself, that taste of myself, of I and me above and in all things…is more distinctive than the taste of ale or alum, more distinctive than the smell of walnutleaf or camphor.” Johnson’s poems are saturated with her own version of this “taste of self.” In the title poem, she writes,

How much plumage
dare I show How much down

Some days I am rich
as the common garter snake

with more testosterone
than you can handle

and the sweetest stench
of pheromones

O small pouch O tiny nipple
O lactating man

Or as the French say cyprine
O Icelandic clam

And whales with lady hips
And dandelions in the thick grass

growing stamens growing pistils
O lion’s tooth.…

As with Whitman, a presiding poetic ancestor she shares with Howe, Johnson is “mad…to be in contact” with all things—human, animal, vegetable, mineral—and In Full Velvet is a sexy, smart, ardent, often pan-species paean to love, to queerness, to daring, to poems (“all things counter, original, spare, strange”). Here, for example, is the third section of “Dappled Things” (the italicized lines are from a Hopkins notebook):

And because I’m minion this morning to gay old music
Thanks Gentle Hop for this this-ness, for teaching attention
How to mark hard word-bodies with stress,
acute glyphs, blue scores. For reckoning the risks
in discipline’s rod—between sheets of loose-leafed linen—
you knew few might hear your coded address

Do I look hard enough to receive?
I am not moved by God, but I am moved by this
To experience the largesse: What you look hard at seems
to look hard at you O to be marked reciprocally, yes please
    Across, above, below, and with

Key to Johnson’s experience of “the self” is reciprocity: the reciprocal gaze, the returned gesture, the mutual marking, the seeing and being seen that is so crucial to self-awareness, identity, and fulfillment. And what Johnson acknowledges as she returns the gaze of Hopkins’s poems is, in part, his veiled homosexuality (“your coded address / Do I look hard enough to receive?”), but also the “largesse,” the plenitude of his all-encompassing and generative linguistic vision, which is at once singular and suffused with longing for another. “This embrace, Love, will keep us here in this perceptual field,” Johnson writes in “In Full Velvet,” the title of which refers to the antlers of some “atypical” deer that never lose their velvet plush to hard bone. “When you are here, Love,” Johnson writes, “I am beside myself.” In “Vigil,” she insists:

I need to tell you about the seeing that goes on between two people,
around two people. Not the touching. The watchfulness.

This is not just about love, though I love her as much now as then.

Later in the poem, Johnson writes, 

Years ago, I followed the gaze of a kid, looking at me through
a mirror in a public restroom in a park in California.

I knew by the duration of her looking that I was already a spot in the glass,
a small detour in her life that she was building a barricade against.

As she pressed her nose to the glass, each exhale fogged the pane.
I knew her. I was her. I left her.

This irresistible book is a crucible of sexual and artistic becoming, of personhood and identity poetics, all served up with force, formal deftness (the book closes with a loose crown of sonnets), and an enviable ear for the music of weeping and laughter that suffuse all lyric poetry. In “Tail,” the speaker imagines herself toting the “shameful length” of a vestigial tail behind her on a city street. “But,” she writes, “as the sun rises—the clean stretch, aesthetic vertebrae—how I might flex / its / elegant, careful weight.”

Consider my newfound balance, how gracefully I ascend a flight of stairs, 
teetering on one leg, my rump poised just so!
Or how I might signal to my lover, wave fondly to her through the air,
lift my fur to tickle her mouth, dash a small crumb off her lips.
In a midnight alley, flashing my snowy underside like a switchblade, we’d sprint
through underbrush.
Had I a tail, I would be luminous and lingering as a comet, who traces the starry night
with a broken ellipsis…

As the poem—like all of the poems in this truly remarkable first collection—dilates, we see that “strangeness” is, in the gaze of Jenny Johnson, cause for empowerment and jouissance.

The title of Joan Naviyuk Kane’s third book, Milk Black Carbon, is a signal that any perception of selfhood for the speaker in these poems is going to be bound inextricably with elements that characterize more than just a single individual. Its strongly spondaic sequence of elemental words demands that we pay attention to what we are made of and how we are connected to everything around us. A member of the Inupiaq tribe—whose members were forced to leave King Island, Alaska, for the mainland after the Bureau of Indian Affairs shuttered the island’s schools—Kane currently lives in Anchorage. She writes in both Inupiaq and in English, and much of her work concerns the imperiled ecologies and living cultures of her native Arctic land. 

In a 2015 piece for PBS NewsHour, “Why Native Poets, and Their Languages, Are So Often Misunderstood,” correspondent Corinne Segal reported that, according to Kane, “the act of writing in a Native language is one tool against the misconceptions that exist about Native people in the US—those that do not account for the reality of diverse, thriving Native cultures.” Kane goes on to say, “There is something that is very troublesome to me about playing into this continued exoticization or fetishization of the Native person as a relic of the past, as a romantic figure, as something outdated or very other. Native people from very different parts of the United States are expected to have similarities because we happened to be colonized by the same government—there’s something problematic there. In Alaska, we still call ourselves Eskimo people. We’re very different, culturally, linguistically, socially, geographically, than what people consider the American Indian population.” Kane’s concern with what has been irretrievably lost and with what might be recovered or sustained comes through in this passage from “A Few Lines for Jordin Tootoo,” a poem addressed to a popular hockey player whose father is Inuk:

In a lecture hall, once, in Barrow,
I listened while the ice of the Beaufort Sea
split into blue leads three months early.
What I heard was: if only we learned

the old ways, we’d learn where we fit
in life, how critical we are to each other.
That a hunt done right results in little
suffering or loss. That the migrations

of fowl, fish and mammals will continue.
What I wanted to hear was a reassurance.
Some kind of premonition or promise:
when words come back, so do the other things

or words come back when you have a chance
to learn them. Instead what I hold within
is the felt absence of place. A land of great
failure, abundance: it goes on without us.

The “felt absence of place” is part of Kane’s topography of the self, and her struggle to articulate what any notion of a coherence might look or feel like in a self shaped by communal diaspora, cultural amnesia, and dramatic ecological change is a constant preoccupation in these poems. In “Human Heart Toponymic,” she writes,

No privacy in the north of me,
the place where ice piles up,
altogether too contracted
for distance of the social kind.

Even as these eroding forces compel the speaker to admit “how again / and over again I’ve lost my way,” there is also a “way I have of holding on to it / as it splits me into something more.” For Kane, the self is fluid and communal. She goes on to say,

            I find

no processional line. Instead
it is as if I were to become human
through a series of transformations.
Thus, as directed by my mother, I culled

small rocks but found them, in the end,
to be a strand of beads, the hole in each
growing smaller. Merestones, my one: 
let us name them together.

This invitation to name together is the green fuse that drives these impassioned poems. “The green part of me never leaves,” Kane writes in “Late Successional,” “however I find that it remains with you.” There is something almost liturgical in this exchange. These poems are generous in their paradoxes, which may account for their breath of hope. “You vanish,” Kane writes in “To Live Beyond,” the book’s closing poem,

into another kind
of silence or the sky a constant blue,

you return from the end of the plain
between the shins of peaks you have yet
to gain, to gather water, water, splendor.

In this way, opening again and again to new anatomies, new names, new becomings, Kane—like Howe and Johnson—sings into being both the selves that form within us and the edges of resistance that give them shape. All three poets work along these boundaries, illuminating and transgressing the limits that can allow the self its meaning.


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