Review by Alex M. Frankel
THE WHOLE MARIE
by Barbara Maloutas
Boise State University
Boise, Idaho 83725
2009, 97 pp., $17.50
Barbara Maloutas’s new collection, the whole Marie—a reticent, puzzling and beautiful book—follows in the footsteps of Gertrude Stein as well as Lyn Hejinian and other Language poets. Maloutas eschews grandness of gesture, overt drama and pat closure in favor of low-key impersonality and a shrewdly layered fragmentedness. Like most postmodern poetry, this is work that seeks to sabotage both the romanticization of the self and the notion of text as an escapist dream. What I find individual and unusual about Maloutas is the candid roughness and methodical awkwardness of her voice; she is more interested in language as exploration than she is in turning out lovely, audience-pleasing lines. I have often heard her read her work (we attend the same workshops and readings in Los Angeles); she reads quietly and self-effacingly, determined not to perform, and yet her writing has quite a bit of life on the page:
Who I am doesn’t matter.
I am the least invested
in the construction. It is
after all a project.
For better or for worse
it does not include everyone
and least of all
strangers who are not invested at all.
These lines, from “Miscalculations: A Guide,” typify Maloutas’s restrained approach, and touch on two salient characteristics of her (and most Language) poetry: a determined de-emphasis on the drama of the poet’s own life, as well as the expectation that the reader work, that the reader be “invested,” and—in a sense—participate in the making of the poem’s meaning. (Language poets would cite the latter characteristic, especially, as a democratizing element of their movement; but since few readers are willing to work that hard, it is doubtful that much democratization is in fact happening, as the above passage acknowledges: “it does not include everyone.”) In section 9 of her “On Porto” series, she writes, “only in words are we aware.” Attention is paid to words not just as the symbols they inevitably must be, but also as material objects. In section 82 of “Proofing Against April,” Maloutas says, “It was breath, most likely, that was her guide.” Taken out of the (intentionally fragmented) context of the poem in which it appears, this passage could be read as a potential critic’s grappling with the poet’s intentions. Theory—and preoccupation with the very process of writing poetry—has come to be part of the subject matter of the poems.
Maloutas permits herself few moments of flowing lyricism: “the small sounds in the plowed ground will last forever,” from section 17 of the prose poem “On Porto,” is a sensuous surprise after the deliberate flatness of “see how they keep the trees rake ready and sunned; I am becoming a grove; (g)ods took lovers in groves; a mere setting; a lower case almighty for their gods’ fears and doubts.” (I was at first unable to discover the purpose of these parentheses, but Maloutas has shed some light on the matter in a letter to me: “I am aware of the field of the page and use many things to disrupt, reinterpret, slow down, question and support language on a page.” More specifically, parentheses serve to “make connection through image. . . expand a notion through association or opposition. . . emphasize and do what the image suggests or cause hesitation. . . or make little words more important than big words.”) There is always movement in these pieces in spite of the apparent flatness of the style, the same way the there is movement in the music of the Minimalist composers. An untitled, sonnet-like, italicized poem that opens the collection plays with the same phrase over and over; it begins:
this learning to tell time
his learning to tell time
is learning to tell time
learning to tell time
learning to tell me
is learning to tell me
his learning to tell me
I find it remarkable how much Maloutas does with one line, how much meaning she conveys by simply adding and deleting letters. The poem opens up to include both first and third person, and even the hint of a story. Remarkable, too, is the way Maloutas discovers what words (and sounds and meanings) can do without being beholden to any agenda or thesis; she allows words to take her where they will, without getting in their way. However, no poetry can be utterly without drama, as the last three lines of this poem show: “being 1:11, almost, she couldn’t / quite tell what time it was when / the earthquake hit.”
And drama is subtly at the heart of the most memorable poems in the whole Marie, a series of eight sonnets (here called “directions”) that appear in the section “Tableaux Vivants.” For all Maloutas’s restraint and reticence, it is fascinating that in these pieces, at the heart of the book, she makes room for a bit of theater—if only in the atmosphere of the poems—to create a series of richly textured and allusive sonnets. “Direction 4” begins:
shadows die shifting red hair (flames)
a corner whispers to creep around to night
merely air sways knowing a refrain
the wind plays (fair) luck as
a woman walks unseen blocking views (blocking)
There are no exclamation marks here, nor are there nervous breakdowns, but the presence of charged words like die, flames, night, shadows and air is enough to alert us that we are indeed witnessing a tableau vivant. This is a still-life sonnet in which little happens but much is suggested. We never find out who the woman is, and we are presented with a Hopperesque surface in which day is giving way to night, as the natural and human world make the gradual transition to darkness. At all times Maloutas avoids the predictable, and offers surprises. The woman in the poem walks “unseen” and yet she is “blocking views”—blocking whose views if she is unseen? The reader is asked to actively resolve (or accept) this sort of contradiction.
The poems in the whole Marie—complex and rewarding, ascetic and sonorous—do not yield all their pleasures in one reading, but must be explored again and again, as is the case with most good poetry. But intricate as they are, they are not merely poems for the page; in spite of what the author herself might say, I believe these pieces can and should be read out loud so that all their textures and meanings can be opened up and appreciated. The poems in this volume offer a glimpse into a first-rate imagination and intellect: fireworks are on display here, in their own quiet way.
Alex M. Frankel is a poet and fiction writer living in Los Angeles. He received his MFA from New England College in 2006 and his work has appeared in the North Dakokta Quarterly, The Comstock Review, Wordriver, Cider Press Review, The Gay and Lesbian Review and Beyond the Valley of the Contemporary Poets, among other journals, and his work has been showcased at www.poetry.la. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.