World's Tallest Disaster
Sarabande Books, 2001
$12.95 (paper), ISBN 1-889330-61-2
The entreaty of the first poem, "Reader, Please," strikes
a cautious note that resonates throughout Cate Marvin's first collection.
Cautious perhaps because you may not trust this poet's voice, might
well be new to her style. Cautious also perhaps because the poet senses
her own volatility, makes a pretense of attempting to protect you
from it. You soon discover, however, that you're her lover, a player
in an espionage of whiskey, parked cars, uniformed men. She wishes
you'd have had the chivalry to light her cigarette for her. She remembers
a security officer's flashlight playing along the length of her body:
"He approached me cautiously." But it was you she was after:
"Your eyes are like hands / dipped in blue paint, they grab and
grab. / Sometimes, reader, I wish they'd taken / me away right there
and then." The air of danger is palpable; the subject is desire.
The reader, approached so gingerly, is enchanted.
The politeness of the first poem becomes traditional apostrophe in
the second: "Department of stars, I address whoever's / in charge."
A similar undercurrent of romantic jeopardy roils here too, with the
poet "stalking" her desired lover's attention, "clutching"
an imagined invitation to his bed. She puts on airs of antique femininity
with "I draped this cloud's / amorous gauze, and combed the soft
grass / where we'll lie. I wear his eyes like rings / on my hands.
I sew the years into a dress." Next image: a rainy night in a
motel room with her lover, the last night they shared a bed. And finally,
"Moon, don't forget your allegiance...." In one sense, Marvin
is tapping very old poetic impulsesapostrophe, personification,
a sort of antiquated gentility. After a few poems we see that she
is also defying those impulses, playing with them, using them as bait
to lure the reader into a private world where speech is personal,
erotic. She continues to do this throughout the book, teasing the
reader with the appearance of form in terms of shapes, stanzas, line
lengths, yet refusing to commit to anything very recognizable.
While these poems shimmer with willing and admirable artifice, it's
just as easy to admire their artfulness. Eroticism and risk are seductively
twined in eclectic form, conspicuous poetic vocabulary, odd curls
of language, and married at last in a story of a subversive love affair
subverted. The artfulness extends to the narrative itself, which emerges
in vignettes, flashes of specificity. This story emerges about halfway
through the book in "The America," "Alba Aberdeen,"
"The Tapestry," and "Dream on This." The single
female speaker visits a married couple in Scotland, slips off with
the husband to "kiss and loll by the edge of the reeking sea"
(35). Marvin makes much of this experience's thrill, its addictiveness,
its furtiveness, harkening to an older day of handkerchief-dropping,
boudoir-bopping mischief. In the story's climax, after the speaker's
return to America, she threatens to publicize the secret relationship.
"I'm not the sunken ship, the unidentified body, / the kissed
mouth, the product of your revision" (54). Harsh words for a
young married man, visitor-seduced.
Here lies emotional heart of the book: a feministic insurgence, an
anger felt so sharply that it becomes physically violent. There are
references to blood (16), household accidents, scars, and young female
bodies forced into tight red dresses (8). A memory of men she has
known"shadows beneath their eyes, and sweet / and slow
moments unzipping their flies"concludes with a stated preference
for "animals I have had" (12). The mouths of the lovers
are stained red and purple with wine"or "droplets,"
at least. "Let's choke back another / glass, let's not gasp /
when you enter the room" (30). Memories flash of emergency rooms,
of chopping onions, of being penetrated under the terrifying "x-ray"
of summer lightning (61). "The World's Tallest Building"
describes the poet's body as a burning building, a participant in
an explosive affair (60). It might be a stretch to observe that the
conceit waxes slightly witch-like, but there are clues: in one poem
the poet boils a cauldron of rocks, another has the title "Spell."
One might at least observe that Marvin's artifice combines fairy-tale
imagery with politeness and traditional poetic rhetoric to form an
ironic counterpart to female anger, anger which is anything but artificial.
If the basic device of Marvin's poetry is sexual desire (and its
consequences) behind a veil of courtesy, her art is enlarged by the
language itself. Marvin's command of language is more accomplished
than one expects in a first book. I would almost say it's a little
bit Yeatsian, as in the concluding sentences of "Spectacular"
And when you go natural, run soft and flushed,
you tend to your imperfections"as hands polish
a knob, quick silver strokes, so mutual you
gleam. I glare like dislocated architecture.
The iris set in my head: black camera.
The skies are mad and storm to starry foam,
as I watch Spectacular you rolling on lawns,
asphyxiated by yourselves who are no ones.
But the poet's control occasionally betrays her, as in "Stopping
for Gas Near Cheat Lake" (16), which is more relaxed and prosaic
to no apparent effect. Its last sentence thuds, "Tell me, / tell
me where I can find the bastard who named this lake?" Sometimes
Marvin also overcompares, overpoeticizes, as in "Camp Rim Rock":
"Danielle's hair yellow / as the sand dumped by the river's /
edge to make pretend it was a beach" (21). The reader finds these
less satisfying moments tolerable, however, sandwiched as they are
between moments of real art.
Another element that enlarges the basic device of Marvin's poetry
is a super-narrative, barely revealed, of the author's disappearence
into her own writing. One sees this for example in "Mortal,"
which begins with the question, "How do you find yourself in
literature?" and answers it with, among other things, an image
of herself as "bound / to drink's dark spiral"alcoholic,
spiral-bound. The poem ends with a suggestion that the poet's suicide
will be reported "later in the paper, along / with other reports
of death and torture," and then a note of-what is it, hope?""This
won't be the last the world reads of you" (28). The title poem
itself is a complex parable in which the poet's body is composed of
"lines" is in fact a "lie, as big as a building"
which ultimately burns down; the poet studies it, watches it intently
(60). In the concluding poem, "The Readership," aliens abduct
the poet into her own fiction, but that's not the only cause of concern:
"And if the readership does not exist?" (73) One senses,
rightly or wrongly, the ghost of Foucault lurking behind the poet's
More importantly, in her first book Cate Marvin has already mastered
the basic movement of her poetry, and it is a promising one. She flits
easily between an antiquated poetic and a mature skepticism about
self(ves), love, and experience. She flashes anger convincingly, illustrates
her cases clearly. She seduces while at the same time revealing basic
doubt about her very identity as a woman, a writer, identities she
both has and has to cultivate. She expresses a convincing ambivalence,
and therefore a wisdom, and does it with undeniable artfulness. An
excellent example of Marvin's ability to synthesize all of these elements
is the short, stunning poem, "Dear Petrarch" (27):
The sweet singing of virtuous and beautiful ladies. . .
More like dogs barking, more like a warning now.
When our mouths open the hole looks black,
and the hole of it holds a shadow. Some keep
saying there's nothing left to tell, nothing to tell.
If that's the truth I'll open my door to any
stranger who rattles the lock. When my mouth
opens it will scream, simply because the hole
of it holds that sound. As for your great ideas,
literature, and the smell of old books cracked
the stacks are a dark area, and anyone could find
herself trapped, legs forced, spine cracked.
It's a fact. Everyone knows it. If I lived in your
time, the scrolls of my gown would have curled
into knots. It's about being dragged by the hair
the saint, the harlot both have bald patches. Girls
today walking down the street may look sweet,
chewing wads of pink gum. And the woman at the bar
may never read. Lots of ladies sing along to the radio
now. But the hole of our mouths holds a howl.
World's Tallest Disaster was selected by Robert Pinsky for
the 2000 Kathryn A. Morton Prize in poetry.