Review by Erica Goss
THE DARKENED TEMPLE
by Mari L’Esperance
University of Nebraska Press
1111 Lincoln Mall
Lincoln, NE 68988-0630
2008, 79 pp., $16.95
The Darkened Temple, Mari L’Esperance’s first full-length book and the winner of the 2007 Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry, pivots on the disappearance of her mother, who vanished without a trace in 1995. Although such a loss is a different type of crisis than death, it is just as traumatic. A disappearance lacks the finality of death, and when no corporeal evidence exists, we will never know exactly what happened to the missing person. L’Esperance’s poems about her mother cover this territory with a skilled delicacy that never accuses or tries to explain It’s a remarkable effect, one that reveals the beauty amid the tragedy of her mother’s life.
Like chapters in a mystery, L’Esperance’s poems lead us through a series of precisely placed clues, beginning with the poem “The Last Time I Saw Her”:
From the car I watched
as my mother ran
toward the train
that would take her back
to the only life she knew
how to live.
In “The Search,” two men drag a lake for something unnamed. Later, in “The Shoes,” “two cracked loaves / caked and curled with dried mud, a man’s size twelve” appear in the mother’s abandoned house, unsettling her children. The shoes refuse to give up their secret, as, in the poem “Where the Body Might Be, the Mind Follows–,” in which “the mother…refused to be found.”
L’Esperance does not solve the mystery for us, but the poem “Finding My Mother,” perhaps the most powerful and disturbing poem in the section about her mother’s disappearance, offers some inevitable conclusions. Using the vocabulary of dreams, where details such as “face down in the coarse stubble” and “her hair is lovelier than I remember it” evoke an otherworldly atmosphere, “Finding My Mother” creates finality with the lines “carry her back” and “we sleep there like that.” The lingering sense that this dream will repeat itself many times echoes throughout the poem; it reminds us that the dead and disappeared come and go through the portal of dreams, and in this way they never leave us.
Although the poems in this section are ostensibly about the experience of a child losing her mother, their subtext is war, a third presence in the relationship between mother and daughter. Though she never states it overtly, L’Esperance makes the connection in references to “crates of skulls, broken / cars and bodies, sacks of stones, their / horrible tonnage” in the poem “Prayer,” the last poem of the first section, and the one that foreshadows the topic of the group of poems about her mother. The fact that her mother survived unnamed horrors traumatizes the daughter; in “Trying to Carry It” she compares the thoughts of a prisoner of war just before his execution to the possibility of hearing, finally, that her mother has died.
The poems about the disappearance are the strongest in the book, but there is much more to admire in L’Esperance’s work. For example, in “The Choices Not Made,” those choices do not sink away because they were not chosen; instead, they “breathe,” “clamor,” “call,” and “scream”; they live in the “muck / and detritus of years of cooking meals.” We may take one and only one path, but what of all the roads not taken, to paraphrase Robert Frost? They continue to haunt, L’Esperance reminds us, and “watch you from under / the stairs.”
In “Kamakura,” a mother and daughter stroll through a landscape fraught with memories of sirens, bombs, and the penetrating odors of war, the caves where the mother hid as a child looming just outside their vision: “What must go through you when we pass them / at a distance, those black maws yawning out of the hillside?” These lines balance the terror of war with children’s fear of the dark, the “caves like eyes / in the hills behind Bah-chan’s house.” The poem captures the irony of a child finding safety in these frightening black spaces, pressed in with countless others.
L’Esperance is also quite effective writing poems of quiet appreciation; “Nocturne” is an almost-love poem that celebrates the bond between a couple reading in bed, “exchanging passages aloud,” while a presence that she describes as “music in the field” “rises up on the air.” This poem captures a mood between yearning and melancholy; though its topic is love and intimacy, some darker spirit moves beneath the words.
The Darkened Temple does what lyric poetry does best. Through a series of slowly unfolding images, the author awakens emotional and physical responses in the reader. L’Esperance never rushes to a conclusion, but lets her word-pictures build into sense-rich epiphanies that are both delicate and devastating.
Erica Goss is a poet and freelance writer living on shaky ground in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Her poems, reviews and essays appear in many print and online journals, most recently Pearl, Main Street Rag, Innisfree Poetry Journal, Perigee, Dash Literary Journal, and Blood Lotus. Currently, she is working on a chapbook.