February 25, 2009

Review by Ted Gilley

ALSO IN ARCADIA
by Andrew Mulvania

Backwaters Press
3502 North 52nd St.
Omaha, NE 68104-3506
ISBN 978-0-9816936-3-7
2008, 67 pp., $16.00
http://thebackwaterspress.com/

Andrew Mulvania’s present-day Arcadia lies in the southern part of the United States, just as the Arcadia of legend lay, similarly isolated, in the Peloponnesus of Greece. Rural Missouri, while less remote, nevertheless qualifies as the kind of place out of which genuine, if obscure, legends might arise. In Mulvania’s hands, the life of small towns and a family farm, conducted in a somewhat somber pageant of narratives balanced by near-perfect lyric elegies, carves a chapter into the black earth of southern literature with the sureness—and occasional unsteadiness—of a horse-drawn plow.

The poems of how-to and make-do, of fishing by lamplight, of picking blackberries, exploring creaky barns, of county fairs and country characters in church basements, are rendered at length in unrelenting, determined detail. One’s pleasure in reading about the childrens’ Halloween celebration (“All Hallows Eve, Solid Rock Baptist Church”) is diminished by the lack of pleasure the poet seems to feel in describing it; the poem has the timbre, pacing, and studied affect of a dutifully delivered sermon. In poems of similar tone, such as “Osage County Fair” and “Putting in the Garden,” Mulvania takes such pains in description, you wish he’d move along a little more smartly, only to discover in the end that description was the point. Is that ever enough?

The poems, for the most part, relate aspects of Mulvania’s childhood, but their lessons can be obscure: in “The House” we are given a tour from the sentimentalized top—“tin roofs and the lightning-rodded night”—to bottom, “the dropped summer kitchen of oven and bread.” But while the description, if sweeping, is complete, what is less clear is why it matters enough to be told. “I think I liked it best on rainy Sundays” the poet remarks, unremarkably, as the poem draws down, ending with a picture of the children “ … amusing ourselves as quietly as cats in a corner/while our father worked, and Mother read … ” And? one wants to ask. What happened then?

But in the lyric poems, Mulvania shines: the marching diction falls away, and in poems like “Baptism at Pointer’s Creek,” “Visitation for the Neighbor Boy,” and “Elegy for Gary Wolfe,” the poet puts aside his bricks and mortar. In “Visitation … ” Mulvania recounts a funeral parlor’s calling hours in terse, three-line stanzas. Focusing almost exclusively on the sign outside the chapel—and noting that the white letters against a black background can be made to spell anyone’s name, the poet reads off

a name that no one can call him again
except in remembrance, or to speak of someone
who came too soon to what we’ll come to in the end—
a name up on the sign the traffic slows
to read before it goes, nevertheless,
on its way. Today, his name, not ours […]

It is not until the final stanza that we find ourselves inside, filing past the body as “ … the horrible organ music drags its feet/and he just lies there like that and won’t move.” The poem slams shut with the finality of a coffin lid coming down.

The book’s title echoes the Latin phrase, “Et in Arcadia ego” (“Even in Arcadia I am”), a memento mori or reminder of the inevitability of death that is more than justified in poems such as “Sunrise Service, Solid Rock Baptist Church” and “Far From Home, I Remember the Neighborhood, and Joe Wolfe, Gone.” In “August Elegy,” a shuffle of accordian-pleated lines recounts the pleasures of summer, concluding with the bittersweet memory of a friend’s death:

In a few days, my friend will die
again, in memory, as he does each year at this time,
and, again, I won’t have said goodbye.
For now, something golden is coming over the fields,
over all the small towns around here,
their parish picnics, their courthouses and spires,
something golden, dragging its tale of fire.

One could substitute tail for tale in that final line, as the poet surely intended us to imagine not just the end of a day or a season, but the inevitable end of all we know, and the dragon of death, fiery and beautiful, moving through life. Fine work.

In another fine poem, “Living Will,” Mulvania muses on what at first seems an idle notion: how “nice” it would be to be buried in the middle of a cornfield just off the the interstate. Nice? But in a few deft strokes the poet fleshes out the scene, description, in this case, giving way swiftly to an image of the highway as a river that

… unfolds forever in two directions,
from one side of the country to the other,
an asphalt Acheron enforcing the divide
between this world and the next […]

The poem concludes, as it began, economically, lightly, gracefully.

Elsewhere, the poet’s hand can be heavy. The distracting glosses and annoying habit of name-dropping weigh down the poems, which struggle to conclude. In “Brueghel Diptych: 1. Hunters in the Snow (Winter)” no fewer than five poets are named. The author is in his professor’s chair; a seminar is in session. I suspect that readers not familiar with the names of Berryman and Williams (no first names provided, of course) won’t automatically attempt to Google these mystery men but will instead simply move on, convinced that they’ve walked into the wrong room. But I’ve little doubt that Mulvania reckons his readers are other poets and that, therefore, everyone will know who Berryman is. Finally, the over-the-top strenuousness (or strange comedy?) of titles like “Elegy with Variations on Donald Justice’s ‘Variations for Two Pianos’” is bewildering, and undermines slightly the more serious writing. But these points cannot draw our attention for long from the many virtues of Mulvania’s work.

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Ted Gilley is a writer and editor living in Vermont. (tedgilley-copyediting.blogspot.com)

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