By Colleen J. McElroy
University of Illinois Press
136 pp., $19.95
Though a teacher, McElroy is of no school; though a storyteller, she would laugh at the confines of plot; though a born skeptic and ironist, she is not afraid to show herself thrilled by love. As the title suggests, much of Sleeping With the Moon takes place in bed, or thinking back on bed (“don’t confuse writing of love and finding it”). A book with such emotional material and such a long memory—girlhood in the 1940s comes to life in “Some Are Dead and Some Are Living”—must steer clear of bitter hindsight or the reverse, nostalgia. McElroy’s approach to her own past and to people undergoing what’s likely to turn out badly calls to mind the matter-of-factness of Colette, as does the intensity, proudly female, that she brings to the position of outsider, wanderer, watcher drunk on the sights, sufferer likely to be found dancing.
She will happily give the MFAs a headache with her unfashionably clear statements and heartbroken admissions and the bold planting, in almost every poem, of the moon, which she annexes to her purposes, only sometimes romantic. It can shine as purely as it does on the cover of her book, yet a mind troubled by history plays over moonlit scenes of dancing and women confiding in each other and sexual love. “[T]hose little quirks carried to bed” will show up, not to mention the whole world of night, with its “cold / hard bed of streets” in which a loved one huddles in the powerful “Codex: Frostbite.”
Recently a female novelist told an interviewer, “A woman’s narrative stops as soon as she begins to have children.” I can hear McElroy’s belly-laugh at that. The women in these poems go on and on; their narratives do not come to a gentle halt in domesticity or motherhood, or in illness or chemo or loss. McElroy is a short-story writer; a word or gesture forces on her a whole history: the disordered interiors of home life and the struggle going on there, courageous and grim. Read “I Speak to the Girl Some Dim Boy Loves,” and shiver at a novel told in 30 lines.
Despite its quarrels with life, the book is in a major key. Its ground note is everyday beauty, of moments, bodies, places, things said and done: beauty gathered with the usual poet’s hunger and mourned when cruel events eclipse it or it simply runs out. But in addition, beauty here is a kind of added sense, experienced from inside as a state of being—the way a person found beautiful, one who has had “the power to choose // which way the wind blows,” experiences its cycle over a long life.
Woman’s experience is at the center of the book. Men come in for comic scrutiny, though as workers, soldiers, and lovers they get some respect and a comradely pity. For a book about love and beauty, Sleeping With the Moon covers a lot of ugly ground, from union-busting to the ordeal of a vagrant who must change his pants in public to a close-up of labor in a copper smelter (“it’s slag work slopping/around in tanks ten feet deep / in copper slime and hoping // overtime makes up for the loss / of breath”). Aging and illness get no gilding. McElroy casts a cold eye on the past “where Indians were chased for the hunt” and black men fought “for a country willing to forget them.” And she doesn’t let herself off the hook.
We are the learned few, the two or three
Who make the rules, who read the books
That tell us how humane we’ve made this life.