World Enough

EACH DAY I READ the e-mailed Poem-A-Day from the Academy of American Poets. Most of the featured poems are approachable and short, and my reading is enjoyable but quick. Recently, though, the daily poem was Maureen N. McLane’s “Passage I,” a poem in nine sections. I read the first stanzas and immediately read them again. Then again. And one more time: “little moth / I do not think you’ll escape / this night // I do not think / you’ll escape this night / little moth.” What strikes me still is how this language — simple, direct, and playful — is immediately undercut by the dark repetition and syntactic reversal in the second tercet: despite the language, despite the relatively ho-hum nature of the moment, the speaker insists on demise.

The following section of the poem works similarly: the poet sets up a lyric moment and straightaway complicates it: “bees in clover / summer half over / friends without lovers.” But by the fourth section, when the speaker addresses a “you,” it becomes clear that this coy, clever poem is a breakup poem, one in which the natural world seems to be both consolation and frustration — offering beauty, succor, and stillness, as well as death and indifference. But it is the final section of the poem, composed of a single, imageless couplet, that I find most stunning: “not that I was alive / but that we were.” Here, unlike the long fourth section, where the address to the absent lover twists the poem inward, the communal first person in the final section reaches out, makes a gesture toward wholeness, however fleeting. So “Passage I” is both personal and cosmic; it is concerned with truly seeing the world we move through, and it insists that we know ourselves in relation to one another.

Still delighting in this poem, I was even more delighted to pick up McLane’s new book World Enough. The same wondering, wandering poetic persona inhabits much of the book, and the poems “Passage I,” “Passage II,” and “Passage III” work as the book’s touchstones, exploring and deepening the motifs of the first poem in the series, and taking up as well some of the usual and explosive concerns of our shared existence: politics, religion, environmental devastation.

Yet, at over 130 pages, World Enough is a few poems too long. Some of the pieces simply aren’t as strong as others. Further, McLane’s persistent syntactic acrobatics lose their luster about two-thirds of the way through; I found myself yearning for even a few lines in a row that add up rather than undercut. And these technical arguments with the text led me to thematic arguments: because I was tired of listening, I got tired of agreeing.

Still, I recommend this book. Take it slow, read a few poems at a time. These past days, coming back to individual poems, I’ve been struck again by how astonishing many of them are, how much they make me want to hear and see. As McLane says in “Song of a Season II”: “To want to be awake / In the light and starred dark — / Every instant another thing / To want. To be awake / Every hour. To miss nothing.”