Review by Erin Feldman
by Maxine Scates
Western Michigan University
1903 W. Michigan Ave.
Kalamazoo, Michigan 49008
2011, 71 pp., $15.00
It is difficult to know where to begin with Maxine Scates’ Undone. To begin with the first poem is to begin with the last one or one found in between the opening and closing poems. In this collection of poems, one cannot merely “begin.” No clear beginning exists. Each poem is invested in the intersection of memory with the past, the present, and the future.
Such intersections could be difficult to follow if Scates did not provide a framework for her collection. She begins it with a quote from Milton’s Paradise Lost: “…so God shall uncreate, / Be frustrate, do, undo, and labour lose…” That framework permeates the work, but Scates adds additional layers to it through Greek myths, Shakespeare, and repeated images of trains, earth, and water. These additions sometimes serve as a way to locate the poems, but that is a secondary purpose. The primary one seems to be of introduction. In the final poem of Undone, she posits: “[W]e can see…each story feeding the one we don’t know / how to say yet, the one waiting in us for the right story / to come along.” The additional layers, then, become a way to introduce narratives, to remember what has or has not been remembered previously.
The stories found within the work vary, but they often dwell upon a fall of some sort. In “Clean,” the speaker remembers the fall of her father:
He wanted clean,
he wanted order, but he couldn’t get free
of what haunted him, think it into something winged
so he could fly across and finally he stopped trying.
The last year, the year before he left,
he didn’t bathe for months, the smell sickened us,
oddly sweet, then cloying, a decay,
belt slung under the belly of beer and Jack Daniels,
as his ruined body passed through the room.
Many of the poems focus on this fall, perhaps because, as the speaker states in “Threnody,” her father is the “one human who had hurt me.” Her statement is not made in anger; instead, most references to her father carry a sense of sorrow. She says in “Portal”:
whose lives are stalled, or like my father’s already over,
passing their days. Their failures are familiar,
friendly, something I’ve carried with me
since – not one of them would harm me, not even
the one who already has.
Other poems, such as “Friday Night Fights,” reflect a similar sadness:
…who is it I’m talking to when I’m talking him,
clown of a drunk who won’t remember
what he wanted, or why he wept? I’ve crossed
the river, and back again, know I’m talking to
the part of me I thought was dead.
The speaker’s sadness is not limited to her father. In fact, her own grief seems to make her capable of bearing the grief of others. In “Blue Boxcars,” she says, “So maybe it’s what grief makes of us, / the instruments of its sad music, the way the view / out any window sometimes makes perfect sense, / is greater than all its parts.” Prior to making this statement, she remembers the young woman who reaches into “the flute / of her own grieving heart and gave him / what he needed to lay down his arms” and states that “we learn / to claim or to ignore…these griefs of citizenry.” The final poem of the collection brings this idea to completion; she states:
…there is a river and we’re in it,
an osprey nest resting in the cradle of stadium lights
and now a woman telling a story riven with such loss
she has to tell someone and she has told you,
your head barely above water as you follow
the current filled with branches and upended trees,
filled with pawn shops and homecomings
and a boy who could be you or me
or my brother watching his father fall down.
The speaker’s sorrow sometimes is for herself, too, but it is not a self-pitying sorrow. Her sorrow often is the result of recognizing her own failures. She mentions her own problems with alcohol in several of the poems, such as in “Not There” or “Vice.” Both poems remark upon the speaker’s own responsibility; in “Not There,” she states, “But / soon I will awaken knowing I have been absent so long / I am in danger of never returning.” The poem “Vice” enmeshes her past with her present:
My almost sin lived
for its moment with the ringing bells, wild
horses and lush tremolos accompanying a fall.
But when the music faded, I saw
two of us were there –
me and you, the one I will not hurt,
who drank my flowering orchard for me.
In other cases, the speaker’s sorrow is the result of remembering the possibility of who she could have been. She says in “Residence”:
The pond is filling, just yesterday
I saw a white haired woman standing on the corner.
I saw the slender girl she was
the way we see Daphne in the willowy trunk of a tree
and I thought, Once I was a girl,
liking so much the idea of what that might mean,
a little surprised I had forgotten.
Her surprise may seem strange, but it is altogether fitting when the poem “Residence” is paired with the poems “Purple is the Color of Repentance” and “The Future.” Both poems struggle with the idea of future and what the future means when it is already known. In“The Future,” the speaker states:
I mean the future that allows me
to look back at him, the future that gathers plans
and expectations, making and remaking itself
in the form of the possible, alive in the way the Greeks
believed the hours were gods.
“Purple is the Color of Repentance” offers a much bleaker perspective of the future. In the poem, a girl ponders what her future will be. She even attempts to rewrite it although it becomes clear that she already has been irreparably harmed by her story, her past: “No burden laid down at her feet / in any larger way, she wants to know what lambent / means, believe kindness can still come from a human hand.”
If such a perspective seems dreary or fatalistic, the speaker fights such an interpretation in “Not There”:
…life resumes in a kind of flooding that I recognize
as my lifetime, broken as anyone’s, the pieces floating up,
the one that knows I could have been that drunk,
the weedy smell of the river in late afternoon, the crickets
humming the days small aches and pleasures in this
my present – which if I’ve learned anything, I’ve learned
is never possible without the past.
The speaker also makes similar comments in other poems; in “The Giants,” she states that “[t]hey [the giants] / gave me everything I wouldn’t have known to love / without their whine, their roar, their terrible noise.” “Shame” also references the necessity of memory. The speaker talks about the man and the woman who are both learning to “balance”:
They’re new to it, trying not to
remember at the same time they’re trying not to
forget and maybe that is the other story…something
small teaching us how to make it through
the ordinary hours we used to love kaleidoscopic
as a shattered green bottle.
The final lines of “Shame” even mention the “sweet possibility of return,” offering some sense of hope or momentary reprieve.
Taken in its entirety, Scates’ Undone presents what only can be termed as reality. People are haunted by their past just as the speaker finds herself haunted by her father’s voice in “Friday Night Fights.” People cannot be divorced from that past no matter how they wish to be; their griefs define them and are necessary. As the speaker says in “Not There,” “[M]y present…is never possible without the past.” It is in remembering this that people–and the speaker found in Scates’ poems–find some way to cope, to “make it through / the ordinary hours,” to not be overcome by all “the pieces floating up.”