Beauty Breaks In by Mary Ann Samyn. 65 pgs. New Issues Poetry & Prose, 2009. $15.00.
What do we mean when we describe a poet or poem as being meditative? In his seminal Poetry of Meditation (1954), Louis Martz argued that the religious poetry of John Donne and George Herbert was deeply indebted to specific forms of Catholic meditation, such as those professed by the Jesuit Ignatius of Loyola. Donne’s batter-my-heart pleadings with God offer an extreme and vigorous version of such religious meditation. By the time we get to the Romantics in England and the Transcendentalists in America, a more secular meditative practice begins to emerge. Thus, we have William Wordsworth’s egotistical inversions where the poet’s imagination displaces the divine, and Walt Whitman’s investment in nature itself as the enduring emblem of divinity.
The dangers of secularizing or naturalizing the meditative model are particularly clear when we consider what John Keats called, in relation to Wordsworth, the egotistical sublime. When the religious impulse becomes diluted in this way, we end up with a bland version of lyric poetry that has been dominant, in various forms, from the New-Critical lyrics of the mid-century up to the present. Both the old and new meditative paradigms include the poet’s often exclusive and intense internal dramas, but instead of self-critique, we now have irony; instead of the self’s detachment from worldly concerns, we now have a thinness of contextual and historical consideration; and instead of ultimate union with the divine, we now have a unity of another sort, where opposites are reconciled and unified, where the epiphanic conclusive insight reigns.
Perhaps this is why, when a phrase like “contemporary meditative lyric” does emerge in discussions of contemporary poetry, it is not honorific. David Orr deployed the phrase in a 2008 article in Poetry to disparage a poetry of safe provincial remove: so many poems written a few miles above so many proverbial Tintern Abbeys. Such disparagement, of course, only highlights one of poetry’s profound anxieties about obsolescence, about that difficult distance between word and world, between poetry and politics. In the rarified locales of the meditative lyric, the poet’s imagination is free to wander in a self-contained and self-created world as damaged as it is, inevitably, beautiful. The meditative, thus diluted, has become conventional shorthand for an isolated lyric voice straining to be heard. But when poems avoid this model, the outcome is often just as underwhelming. Then, you get edgy, evasive poems where the fragment is at once dominant and drained of its signifying power.
This condensed narrative might seem an under-substantiated account of how contemporary poets have negotiated the broad historical movement from religious to secular lyric. Yet it tells a story that I would wager is familiar to many of us. When something or someone challenges the stories we tell ourselves, we take note. And so it is against this backdrop that Mary Ann Samyn’s poems in Beauty Breaks In (2009)—pitched carefully between the divine and disjunctive—distinguish themselves with a novel blend of sly, strained, scattered wit and a deep, contemporary meditative urge.
Samyn’s work over her last three books—all published with New Issues in their distinct duo-tone, palimpsestic, muted-matte design that makes their books such a pleasure to look at and hold—might seem, after a cursory reading, consistent to a fault. Certain standard moves and themes persist: reflexivity, strained devotion, materiality of both language and body, colloquialisms and asides, formal attention to white space, a certain reticence, occasional nods to Nancy Drew. But this apparent consistency—to my eye and ear rewarding enough in itself—grounds a subtler range of shifting intensities that emerge in each collection.
The poems in Inside the Yellow Dress (2001), her second full-length collection and her first to be published by New Issues, is the most clearly devotional, the most liberal in its use of white space for dramatic purposes, the most prone to offer poems of spare clarity, precise image, and the most prone to invent stunning epiphanies. They are also very somatic poems: words like hurt, hunger, and ache, when they appear in the collection, take on the quality of lodestones. Starting in medias res, as many of her poems do, “A little splendor is nice” offers an apt example:
—Then my need became a beautiful force.
Or the sweep of Christ’s cheekbones,
their sorrowful x =
Which is why I went around ruining things:
in order to suffer better.
Except the lesson had a hole I could put my hand through.
Like a bucket I’d carried uphill,
—or, yes, like happiness:
water dripping down my arms,
the gorgeous sound of hurt leaving—
Samyn’s “x=” is iconic: a precisely wrought depiction of Christ’s gaunt cheekbones whose vertices (X) converge in those sorrowful lips (=). The image also suggests a concise algebraic shorthand for salvation itself. The poem is meditative in a classic sense in that it focuses on a religious scene, reflects on and purges the self, and achieves a sort of self-transcendence—here, overheard in that “gorgeous sound of hurt leaving.”
In her next collection, Purr (2005), we move from what Samyn calls flesh’s “articulate terrain” to plumb more intensely the depths of language itself. The lovely initial image in that collection’s first poem, “Beneath Speech,” indicates as much: “—She lay very still, looking up at the undersides of words.”
Matters that Samyn explored with a deeper pathos in Inside the Yellow Dress are more often transformed into the drama of language itself in Purr, as words and letters become characters acting out a kind of shadow drama: “Psychosomatic is a good word,” she writes in “A Third Source of Unnecessary Tension,” “though sometimes consonants just pretend to get along.” So often led by speech and sound’s inner ear, these poems experiment with various rhetorical postures, the raucous and witty punctuated by the colloquial and mundane. A poem near the end of the book seems to reflect on this range, which is at once energizing and exhausting:
The language finished, and set me down.
I had been performed.
I had been emptied.
Samyn’s most recent collection, and the delayed subject of the present review, begins from this ascetic emptying. We turn from the body, to linguistic scrutiny, to thought itself. The title of a late poem in Purr—”A Thought, For Example, Is a Form”—presciently and incisively offer a gloss on this shift. It is not the line, the stanza, or the page that defines the poems in Beauty Breaks In, but the fleeting weight of thought itself. The mind’s workings become tangible in these lines, a sense enhanced by their propensity to contain—rather than break on or enjamb—discrete units of thought. These poems are most alive not when they achieve a certain meditative balance, but when they document and dramatize the difficulty of such concentration. One might call this a cerebral realism. Yet the collection is shadowed by divine and saintly presences. And the fleeting unstable thoughts themselves attain a consistency—a studied practice—that is meditative without being either egoistic or epiphanic, devotional without being sentimental or self-righteous.
One of the many strategies that Samyn uses in creating these fractured meditative lyrics is to work reflexively against the assumption of progress, to stem the urge toward epiphany that became such a powerful tool and trope in Inside the Yellow Dress. A brief list of these counter-epiphanic endings suffices: “This is the line for joy”; “Watch: I’m doing astonishment here”; “What more can I say?” “Want to enjoy some majesty?”
Certain poems, such as “Her Sun Was Blue, Her Tree Was Green, Her Line Was Very Straight,” appear to reflect on this very strategy:
Another dazzling finale
and then I get to choose the braver way.
Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
are the questions.
Be still, be quiet, be calm and watch,
the best advice I know.
If I could wave a magic wand, I would.
Remembering is such a thrill
the rain does it all day long.
This is the current dread.
This, the nest of birds outside our window.
This poem ritualizes the act of backing away from a more charged utterance, from another dazzling finale. “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” summons Macbeth, while the next line’s “are the questions” deadpans a presumed answer from Hamlet. After this rhetorical chastening, “Be still, be quiet, be calm and watch” invites a lovely silence. This is lyric without the magic wand. And yet there is such indelible, indescribable magic in the second-to-last stanza: “Remembering is such a thrill / the rain does it all day long.” The stanza at once recalls and mourns a more epiphanic utterance, offering a kind of nostalgic elegy to epiphany. But the conclusion cannot sustain this glimpse in its recognition of an inescapable present that won’t yield to wonder: “This is the current dread. / This, the nest of birds outside our window.”
In these moments, Samyn attains something like a fractured meditative stance. The meditative urge seems broken, and yet the pieces are so carefully gathered. “That’s ok,” Samyn writes in “Some Churches”: “I prefer my mosaics in a messy heap. / Shard. Shard. Shard. Every plea / nearly answered.” These poems offer an inventory of the mundane—what she calls the “fe fi ho hum” of life—shot through with the unsuspecting marvelous. And just as “Some Churches” infuses the fractured meditative with the devotional, numerous poems in this collection offer glimpses of the divine in their skewed meditations on some God, on mystery, on the saints, their empty votive jars repurposed and filled with life’s nuts and bolts.
Critics love talking about poetic careers. And while it is certainly too early to begin speaking of Samyn’s career arc, I would like to declare an end to the first major phase of Samyn’s career. Beauty Breaks In offers a kind of meditative remainder. Or, as she anticipates already in Purr: “After the poem, the residue of the poem.” In this sense, Beauty Breaks In has an undeniable finality to it. It signifies a kind of exhaustion, and also a kind of contentment. In the book’s last poem, we arrive at this temporary resting place:
Beauty breaks in everywhere.
Welcome to the wind-powered poem.
Like the ocean or the woodcut of the ocean.
I heard the hardest thing and listened.
Syntax says, you first. Shimmer half-scolds.
I said, I am loved. Sometimes a correction happens.
Fear made it one full week. A human action.
I stopped making it worse than it was.
The first line—borrowed from Emerson—is a backwards glance, just as the poem as a whole is a kind of mid-career résumé. She exercises that familiar casual-smart wit, reinventing Coleridge’s aeolean harp and Shelley’s western wind as she welcomes the reader to the new “wind-powered poem.” The line about syntax recalls many previous reflections on the language-led nature of her work and thought. And, as we have seen often happens in the chastened endings of this most recent book, the shimmer as often scolds as it does transport.
Anton Vander Zee is completing his PhD at Stanford University and is visiting assistant professor at the College of Charleston. He has published on poets from John Milton to Wallace Stevens and beyond, and is the editor, with Emily Rosko, of an edited collection—A Broken Thing: Poets on the Line—forthcoming from University of Iowa Press in spring 2011. (4/2010)
Anton Vander Zee is completing his PhD at Stanford University and teaches at the College of Charleston. He has published on poets from John Milton to Wallace Stevens and beyond, and is the editor, with Emily Rosko, of an edited collection—A Broken Thing: Poets on the Line—forthcoming from University of Iowa Press in spring 2011. (updated 10/2010)