Review by Michele Battiste
LIQUID LIKE THIS
by Leslie Anne Mcilroy
PO Box 541106
Cincinnati, OH 45254-1106
2008, 84 pp., $18.00
Leslie Anne Mcilroy begins Liquid Like This with an epigraph from Carole Maso: “Of course she goes too far./ There’s nowhere else for her to go.” These words function as a legend, providing a hermeneutic tool for tropes sustained throughout the book. The kissing and the blood, the storms and the sticky, the guns and the liquor and the orgasms, all are symptomatic of desires that are born of circumstance and that breed quests to escape circumstance, to journey to the extreme edge. Yet Mcilroy’s poems, like the epigraph she chose, are not as straightforward as they first appear. The “where” to which Mcilroy goes again and again is the body. Doing so, she shakes off social constructions (constrictions) that privilege the martial over the filial, the destructive over the generative, condemnation over reclamation.
Writing the body, Mcilroy seeks and finds asylum from (anti)social norms that often dictate daily interactions and perceptions. In her poem “Jesus Fish (and Bush Stickers),” Mcilroy turns what could easily be dismissed as a political cliché into a complex ethical dilemma. It is the proponents of the Jesus fish and Bush stickers who are the good people in this poem: “They are / conscientious objectors. Built a hospital in Castaner // to protest the war.” It is hard not to empathize, however, with the speaker, who, after stating that “Only small people hate god,” admits to “getting smaller each day.” The speaker grows impatient through mealtime prayers and swallows smart-ass remarks like “That book’s really old.” Yet Mcilroy doesn’t let her reader indulge in the smugly comic for long, grimly acknowledging how pleasant it is to despise the do-gooders. Instead, she asks,
What to say to those who offer god like a plug
for the hole in my soul, salvation like a presidential pardon?
There is a threat hiding behind the good deeds of the hospital-builders, a monomaniacal worldview and an assumed position of power that leaves no room for those who hold other beliefs. Mcilroy doesn’t attempt to reconcile the positive and negative attributes of the believers or to bridge the chasm between the speaker and the devout. Instead, she transitions to the realm of the body, the space where contradictions can exist. She concludes, “I show them my palms, / how I bleed, explain how I hired a carpenter to fix my fence.” For Mcilroy, the body is the site of both mystification and demystification. The divine is not present in the spirit but in her hands, whereas the hands of the carpenter are profane but good. The Messiah becomes possible, but only through the human experience.
Nothing is more divine in Mcilroy’s poems than sex, the body’s most potent source of power. For Mcilroy, the power is not in sex’s ability to seduce, to control or to render subservient; rather it is in its ability to generate, to communicate, to form and forge bonds. In “Whore Universe,” a poem which begins with the speaker “bare-assed // against the stone,” Mcilroy refuses to isolate the act of sexual communion, identifying the speaker as
this heavy-ho, dirty-slut girl – mother/sister/
daughter/lover – full and round like heaven,
solid and silent as a prayer, blessed
and abandoned like that star fleeing the galaxy.
Ostensibly, the speaker is addressing a male lover, mentioning in the first line “your choked, throaty whisper” and in the eighth “the hard rock of yourself finding its home between / my legs.” Yet while the speaker directs her address to the one man, Mcilroy directs her address to the feminine universal: daughters/sisters/mothers who cannot separate their familial selves from their sexual selves. In a Whitmanesque move, Mcilroy’s speaker comes (cums) to contain and encompass all women, and their realm grows beyond that of the family through sex. The speaker (and by extension, all women) inhabit the universe, not just in their traditional female roles, but as prayer and star. Women, by embracing both the “dirty-slut girl” and the “mother/sister/daughter/lover” selves, are likened to heaven itself.
It’s important to note that Mcilroy chose similes here instead of metaphors. The girl/women are like heaven, like a prayer, like a star. Again, Mcilroy complicates things. The speaker, with “cunt wet and telling,” wants “some marvel of modesty to transform” the girl/women/prayer/star “into a light of its sorry own.” While once again making room for contradiction within the body and self (modesty and the dirty-slut girl), Mcilroy also points to the necessity of modesty within the sexual constitution of the woman. The dirty-slut girl cannot be complete, an independent entity, without her alterity, which is why, perhaps, in the end, whatever light into which the speaker is transformed, it will be her sorry own.
Ambivalence permeates Mcilroy’s words and images. In the beautiful poem “The Song She Knows,” the speaker is watching her daughter play with sticks and leaves by a lake. She is writing a letter to her daughter’s father, trying to find “a way to say I can’t forgive you that is lovely and wet.” The scene is fecund, filled with “trees and slim deer fondling grass, / lakes and soft dirt roads.” Mcilroy creates the ideal pastoral image, but then frays the edges. The green is “suspicious” and the speaker begins to “close in on” herself. She admits to hating the scene, though the only imperfection that she offers has little to do with the natural; rather, it is that in the family scene, the father is not only missing, he is unforgiven. She concludes the poem by expressing a preference for the city where “things die and god willing, stay dead.” Again, echoes of Whitman, especially his poem “This Compost,” can be heard in Mcilroy’s lines. The beauty of nature, regeneration, is also its danger: the dead return.
It is impossible to write about Mcilroy’s poems without mentioning her stunning, often disconcerting images, and her musicality, especially in her first lines. They jump up and grab hold of you, demand that you enter the poem. “How I Came to Love the Apocalypse” begins with “The house still smelled like ham.” In addition to all the associations the line conjures – holidays, the inertia after the holidays, a house emptied, the lingering staleness – the music of the line seduces: the progression of the short vowels punctuated by that long “I”, the lulling of the “L” and “S” sounds, the cohesion of the beginning “H” repeated at the end of the line. It is because of this musical precision that I am sometimes jarred by Mcilroy’s occasional easy internal rhymes. Phrases such as “earthen birth” and “swallow the moon and let it balloon” have a hard time holding their ground when the writer can do this with a topic as mundane as “Mouth Noise”:
the click of lips, spit on thick gums,
the breath that ricochets off teeth
voicing a deep, dark unspeakable.
Fortunately, Mcilroy’s book is brimming with similar gems. The first line of “Baby Pictures” is “Diabetics have big babies.” “Scars” begins with “The most obvious is the appendix.” “Somebody’s set the table wrong with real linens” sets not only the scene but the tone and the mood in “Dinner Dream.”
Leslie Anne Mcilroy covers a lot of ground in her journey to “too far,” a journey that ultimately returns to the self. Mcilroy is not shy about telling us what she finds there; she knows that humans are sticky, wet messes. And she explores those messes with a poet’s ear, a lover’s care, and something way bigger than love.