IS Everything Here On Fire?
Mary Margaret Alvarado's Hey Folly
By Mary Margaret Alvarado
Dos Madres Press, 2013
Review by Daneen Bergland
ctavio Paz said that lyric poetry “begins as an intimate bedazzlement.” The voices in Mary Margaret Alvarado’s first book, Hey Folly, are both intimate and bedazzled. Many of these poems are personal conversations, be they overheard snippets of others’ conversations, addresses to an old friend, or observations from a dear grandmother. And though the voices of the poems often speak in close quarters, they can also be restless, ready to pop and foam over the edges of their containers, with joy, with despair, with astonishment.
This book is concerned with matters of life and death. It features sensual, image-packed poems like “Stay With Me,” a moving patchwork of moments of death, or like the very different “To Bang on a Beer in Your Chinatown Basement & Live,” which exclaims “I wanted to belt backup, bang/ on a beer in your Chinatown basement/ and live. I wanted to live.” and recollects a series of moments in a life, distilling the remarkable from the mundane.
Each dawn creeps; we run out with our hands cupped up.
Each dusk flares; the liquid Crisco on the kitchen sill
of the alleged apartment –
briefly; it is a lamp.
There are a few poems like “Tonight I am Supercharged with the Colors” that make more Whitmanesque gestures: ecstatic catalogs of the ordinary, but with a modern sensibility marked by code-switching, reverence, and sarcasm:
Remember the week when the attending physician said
there was no point to his existence
either? That wasn’t helpful.
Occasionally, the larger themes of life/death as they relate to extinction and apocalypse are explored in poems such as “Lesser Glacial, Lesser Gasp” and “Under the Emergency Powers,” poems that imagine not an inevitable end in which “Each fruit fills/ itself & falls,” but an inevitable after:
In the new time
after the old time, called
The Little Age of Beauty
in dry cisterns & convene
to watch the skies.
Ultimately, all of the poems in this book are about living and the sacred flame at the heart of life: the desire to keep living. The book begins with an epigraph from Julian of Norwich, “Blessed be the Lord! Is everything on fire here?” A quirk that marks the poems of Alvarado is her affinity for exclamation points, which may be seen as little flints, propelling that fire forward, bursts of phosphorous. As in one of my favorites, “It Startles,” which begins
Who can punctuate it? Wife.
The unplantable blacktops in the past
Of my wife. My wife getting naked
Under stars in a car.
This prismatic poem investigates the word “wife” from different angles, kaleidescoping toward its cheered end,
Now! The cold! Is! Past!
The final, enigmatic and highly stylized poem “Now it Begins” makes unconventional use of both quotation marks and exclamation points. The poem begins by announcing the arrival of “The 400 horses!” and later of “caribou we cannot catch” and “Whole flocks” “of pregnant ladies” “Who just got that way!” as well as “Iceberg inhabitants & floes” “The color of iris gin.” In combination, the strange punctuation serves to create a hurtling and disrupted rhythm, like going up and up an ancient roller coaster that keeps catching and lurching forward, as well as creating a sort of collaged book of revelations out of advertisement blurbs and headlines, like a ransom note pieced together from scraps of magazines.
When I read a book of poems, I look for the structures and qualities that give it form. I’ve heard it said that first books are more often collections than books. I’ve also thought that some contemporary poetry books are too conceptual and work too hard on being a book rather than being a book of great poems. At times I wondered how the organization of Alvarado’s book was working and whether it held together as a book, versus as a collection. One motif that seems an effort to stitch the book together is created by a series of “The chapter of” poems that appear throughout the book, featuring bracketed titles taken from chapters in a translation of the Qur’an. The book is divided into three numbered, untitled sections, and I wasn’t necessarily able to intuit the thematic or formal logic within each of these groupings, though I could see the relationship or dialogue between individual poems and their neighbors. Titles to the sections may have helped, and perhaps the book could have been more purposefully curated and edited. But despite their range in register and form, the poems stand together under the umbrella of concerns the book addresses. Hey Folly is about reverence for, and the ecstasy of, life. The speaker of many of these poems wants to touch ecstasy with both the spirit and the flesh—wants to “eat hot dinner rolls & get smash beatific.”
Many of Alvarado’s poems remind me of those in Laura Kasischke’s gorgeous book Space, in Chains. The poems in both books are deeply empathic, concerned with the suffering of others, and the effect of the private on the public spheres. As Stephen Burt says of Kasischke’s book, the poems are “self-aware, not self-absorbed.” The same is true of Alvarado’s poems, most of which seem to emanate from an autobiographical impulse, but resonate more broadly. Both books feature poems that catalog beauty and ugliness—often indistinguishable from one another—in what feel like prayers and hymns, exalting and cataloging the testimony of the everyday common experiences that knit humanity together, as when Kasischke acknowledges the “sacred path” of waiting for much of our lives standing together in lines. Both poets seem at equal times burdened and honored by the daunting task of the poet to get all the details right, as when Alvarado writes: “I have one thing to say/ and I can’t even say it./ It’s like. It’s like.” For the poet’s responsibility, as Paz explained, is not to “attempt to beautify, hallow, or idealize what [she] comes in contact with; rather [she] attempts to make it sacred […] because poetry, testimony of ecstasy, of blessed love, is also testimony of despair. And it may be as much blasphemy as it is plea.”
Mary Margaret Alvarado’s poems and essays have appeared in such periodicals as the Iowa Review, Jacket 2, and the National Poetry Review. Hey Folly is her first book.
Daneen Bergland’s poems have appeared most recently in Denver Quarterly, Cerise Review, and Poet Lore, as well as in the anthology of Pacific Northwest poets, Alive at the Center.