Parul Sehgal Reviews Maureen N. McLane’s My Poets at Bookforum
NPR book editor Parul Sehgal gives Maureen N. McLane’s latest book a reverent review at the Bookforum website. The book, My Poets, is both criticism and a memoir, a self-analysis of the poet’s major influences. Referring to McLane as something beyond a “varsity reader,” Sehgal praises her “forensically close readings” that, nevertheless, succeed in reinventing our perception of Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore and Chaucer.
It’s a visceral kind of criticism, sexy, strange, and suspenseful. Nabokov said to read for the tingle at the tip of the spine. Dickinson spoke of poems that took off the top of her head. Language enters McLane’s body like a current. Her whole body bucks and shudders. Her responses are forcefully somatic—“Some of her poems bypassed my brain and registered directly on the nerve endings”—and matched by the syntactical sophistication of her thought, her attraction to contradiction. Witness her response to the conclusion of Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish” (“everything / was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow! / And I let the fish go”): “Some days this seems coercively tidy and moral and obligatorily epiphanic and another instance of romantic ideology and sickening other days it seems a parable for living or rather attending.” Criticism is a temporal art, she reminds us. Our judgments are subject to mood; they are various and fickle. McLane destabilizes the authority of the critic—and the poem. “Poems aren’t for teaching; they insinuate,” she writes.
But not all of McLane’s supercharged words are reserved for her fellow poets. Sehgal also mentions an inescapable, enigmatic woman who becomes an equally important figure in My Poets.
McLane’s hunger for poetry and for this woman are tangled; she desires to decipher them in order to possess them. McLane’s critical language is often flush with eros: “I thought I could make Stein mine,” she writes. “I thought I could read Bishop and could know that mind and make it mind my mind.” But such are McLane’s finely developed negative capabilities: She exalts in the waiting. “I am fascinated by that threshold where one hovers, not getting it yet wanting to get it,” she writes. “Where a tentative desire contends with frustration. Where frustration may be converted into desire, and desire into some provisional illumination.” This isn’t the language of criticism; this is the language of seduction, a celebration of yearning, of not-knowing and not-having.
Go to Bookforum for the full review.