ON Oracle BY Cate Marvin
W.W. NORTON & CO., 2015
REVIEW BY MAX MCDONOUGH
“I was known to be dumb, detentioned, a kill myself kind of girl,” the speaker of Cate Marvin’s “High School as a Dead Girl” attests. “But it was you who shot herself in the head. What kind of girl shoots herself in the head? You wanted a quality kill? Take some sleeping pills, spare your mother the blood-grief.” Disarmingly blunt and incredibly sharp, “High School as a Dead Girl” is an emblematic poem in Marvin’s third collection, Oracle, priming the reader for the pages to follow; it begins a lyric sequence that returns to high school’s dim and fabular hallways, where Marvin’s speaker is, like so many of us, still rooting out her origins — sexual, violent, gendered, and otherwise. “We wanted / what we all wanted,” the poem laments. “To be pretty. Which then meant famous.”
That’s not to mistake these haunted (and often hilarious) poems as trapped to adolescence, however. The inverse, perhaps; adolescence is trapped to them, a palimpsest (“Yet I still wear the dead girl’s perfume,” for example, from “Dead Girl Gang Bang;” or, “I’m calling you Mom / now that I’m his mom, Mom. Your son can’t / say what he thinks because you didn’t teach / him how to articulate himself, Mom,” from “After Aftermath”).
Arranged non-chronologically, poems about those banished teenaged years often brush up against poems that dramatize love and divorce in the speaker’s later life. This structure invites the reader again and again to consider how one’s middle age is shaped by the rules enforced and reinforced decades before. The labor of marriage, for instance, looms over a poem about a high school industrial arts class, where in the midst of such heavy machinery, the lust of students “forms in vaporous pools on the floor” and the girls risk “cutting those pretty fingers / off or sawing [themselves] in half.” For what purpose? “Something no one can use that / no one wants,” the speaker answers. “It builds character.”
As the book’s title suggests, some of the poems speak as if from the mouth of a failed though self-possessed diviner, a speaker foretelling the present, sort of asking, “Couldn’t we see this coming?” Somewhat more optimistically, a number of poems consider alternative, hypothetical lives, in moments that feel somehow both unleashed and heartbreakingly restrained — as in “High School as The Picture of Dorian Gray,” on remembering a teenaged first kiss:
now fashion that dead boy’s head so it might
whisper back to me a compliment? But I was
just legs and nothing else. You really should
go outside sometime, instead of staying inside
reading books. You’re pretty. You’re pretty!
In that life, I’d become an alcoholic. In another
life, I’d be much happier as an office machine.
Does existence as an office machine sound all that much happier? So much of Oracle gleams with this darkly funny attention for self-contradiction — Marvin’s superpower, remarkable, and it feels entirely hers. The reader witnesses it again in “Thoughts on Wisteria,” as the speaker considers the perks of living on the Mid-Atlantic coast: “Recall how you once suggested I / sit by the sea to relax? I failed to admit the beach / here is littered with syringes. This is my good-bye. / I wish I lived in a little house by the sea. But I do.”
Within its lush and forsaken landscapes, Oracle’s ghosts are out and about, rummaging through the suburban litter, fogging up the mirror glass, “their deer nose-close at dawn,” trembling, messy. Marvin’s sensibility takes what might otherwise overwhelm — the suicide of a teenaged friend, one’s own mental illness, a divorce — and transfigures them not exactly into song, but something closer to what Bishop called a “perfectly useless concentration” by which the self remains not unscathed but preserved. And in Marvin’s particular case: swashbuckling, blustery, and ready to tell all about her bedraggled night-rides on the Staten Island Ferry.
Cate Marvin’s first book, World’s Tallest Disaster, was chosen by Robert Pinksy for the 2000 Kathryn A. Morton Prize and published by Sarabande Books in 2001. In 2002, she received the Kate Tufts Discovery Prize. She co-edited with poet Michael Dumanis the anthology Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century (Sarabande Books, 2006). Her second book of poems, Fragment of the Head of a Queen, for which she received a Whiting Award, was published by Sarabande Books in 2007. Marvin teaches poetry writing in Lesley University’s Low-Residency M.F.A. Program and is Professor of English at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York. In 2009, she co-founded the nonprofit organization VIDA: Women in Literary Arts with poet Erin Belieu. A 2015 Guggenheim Fellow, her third book of poems, Oracle, was released from W.W. Norton & Co.
by Cate Marvin
W.W. Norton & Co., 2015
$25.95 hardcover, ISBN: 978-0-393-07798-8
Max McDonough is a poet based in Nashville, Tennessee, where he is pursuing his MFA at Vanderbilt University. He's currently the nonfiction editor for Nashville Review, and has work appearing or forthcoming in Gulf Coast, Meridian, CutBank, The Journal, and elsewhere.
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