Wednesday, September 2, 2020

M.W. Jaeggle : Murmurations, by Annick MacAskill

Gaspereau Press, 2020

The first section of Annick MacAskill’s Murmurations opens with an epigraph from Vis-à-Vis: Field Notes on Poetry and Wilderness, a trio of essays by Don McKay on poetry, language, and the natural world. MacAskill draws from a passage in which McKay describes the “vertigo” felt when the profundity of a being or thing evades attempts to make such an encounter intelligible through language. “As with tools,” MacAskill quotes from McKay, “it is often during such momentary breakdowns that we sense the enormous, unnameable wilderness beyond it—a wilderness we both long for and fear.” If opening a poetry collection with a passage on the trepidation and desire felt toward the ineffable implies the ensuing poems have something to say about linguistic terra incognita, it’s a mantle which MacAskill doesn’t shirk. The poems in Murmurations create a feeling of “at ease” with alterity, yet never to impinge on wilderness, if such an imposition were possible. In tracing how, and to what effect, these poems capture my attention, I marvel at how the poems consistently skirt the uncanny, that eerie mix of familiarity and strangeness, to trace what could be called intimacy with uncertainty. I marvel, in short, at how the poems shape sound and image in ways that respect and enrich the differences that make intimacy of all kinds meaningful. 

          “Ornithologists” is an early sonnet in Murmurations that exhibits a subtlety that does so much to create a sense of equanimity with the unfamiliar. There’s irony in the title, since much of the poem catalogues a novice birdwatcher’s difficulty with cultivating the saint-like patience and knack for detail that birding requires. MacAskill creates a colloquial, down-to-earth rhythm through lines that hide prepositions, bury verb phrases, and enjamb to delay syntactic fulfilment: “I know geese for their resilience, ducks // their footle—robins and jays shining / against all backdrops.” Casual and unpretentious, MacAskill’s phrasing and honest portrayal of uncertainty wins this reader’s sympathy and understanding. Indeed, “crows look just like ravens / and ravens exactly like crows,” especially from a distance. But it’s not the way the phrasing pairs with the speaker’s tally of avian data that makes this poem such a memorable depiction of being “at ease” with the unfamiliar. It is in the poem’s concluding lines where MacAskill apostrophizes that the poem transforms from a first-person account of birding to a tribute of getting to know another person through birding. The final line of the penultimate tercet, “And over lunch that day,” leads into the poem’s final tercet: 

                     you pointed out the window to what you said was a falcon,
                     or hawk. I would have given anything to understand.
                     At that time, I just nodded, like I knew what you were saying.

In admitting that she “would have given anything to understand,” the speaker states her ignorance of what birdwatching means for her companion; this revelation hinges on MacAskill’s decision to leave the imperative “to understand” stranded without an object that might refer to the sighted bird. In making such an admission, the speaker bares her desire to be closer to the unnamed “you.” And with the poem’s final line revealing a time between the events described and their voicing (“At that time, I just nodded, like I knew what you were saying”), MacAskill suggests that the speaker in the lyric present has come to better understand the significance of birding for her companion and thereby has grown closer to this other person. I relish in how MacAskill delays divulging why the speaker has taken up the task of birding (“learning / the determination I have shunned since child”), then, as is the case in all good sonnets, discloses a resolution at once deeply satisfying yet not necessarily representing interpretive closure. In a poem so concerned with making knowledge tangible, it is notable that the reader isn’t given any way of knowing what the meaning of birdwatching is for the companion. Withholding this meaning is what makes this poem a memorable encapsulation of the unfolding of personalities that occurs in relationships of all sorts. Why? Because the withholding creates a felt absence for readers which resembles in its ambiguity the inscrutability of other people, what makes getting to know another person a tenuous yet theoretically inexhaustible process. It’s thanks to grammatical deletions and evasions that MacAskill makes this beautiful facet about intimacy seemingly palpable. 

          If you Google “Murmuration,” you will find images and videos of skies dotted with thousands of starlings flying in what seems like a coordinated or predetermined fashion. If you watch a video of these starlings, you will glimpse formations briefly transform into a shape, perhaps a recognizable one, before seamlessly stretching, folding, twisting, or condensing into another. It would be right to say that in tracking the effects of MacAskill’s poetry one can perceive sound, imagery, and other elements in a similar choreographed state of movement. But I find the persistent softness to her voice a greater point of comparison. Unlike a murmur, a sound petering out into silence or unintelligibility, MacAskill’s voice is like the edge of a murmuration in daylight – soft, rounded, yet entirely distinct in how it takes shape. In “Oath (Lauds),” MacAskill creates this unique edge by balancing vivid description with a change in register. In this first strophe describing a dream alight with birds, note the amount of detail MacAskill packs into two sentences:

                     I didn’t dream of you last night,
                     but I dreamt of starlings, gasoline-coloured,
                     staggered on branches of trees,
                     stripped by winter. The sky
                     was blue-black, and the flock sang, fat,
                     scattered like Christmas lights, the warbles
                     too faint for me to hear, but everything shaking
                     with their notes, tenebrous and stubborn.

The first strophe comes across as descriptive, at the very least un-tenebrous, because adjectives are fittingly paired with nouns (“starlings, gasoline-coloured”) and the sole simile strikes a pleasing mix of surprise and recognition. Enjambment following nouns and verbs additionally slows down the reading experience, forming short breaks that imitate the pauses and hesitations that occur as we struggle to recall a dream. Now compare the effects of the first strophe to those of the second:

                     My phone rests silent. Last night
                     you asked me through the laptop screen
                     to stay up with you. Tomorrow
                     tomorrow, the promise quiet
                     but still ringing in my ear.

It might be said that the lack of detail and figurative language in the second strophe causes this poem to do exactly what I just said MacAskill’s voice doesn’t do – that is, end like a murmur. I don’t believe I am being too charitable in saying that the contrast between the strophes is too noticeable for such criticism to be merited. By following a strophe replete with detail with one exhibiting an obvious dearth of such quality, MacAskill asks her language to perform more with less. The word with the most syllables in the second strophe (“Tomorrow”) is part of an enjambed sentence and repeated, which recalls in its recurrence a drawn-out petition often found in prayer. “Promise,” paired with the sole adjective in the strophe (“quiet”), additionally relates the strophe with prayer’s hushed supplication. Here I reach the limit of my understanding with “Oath (Lauds),” however. MacAskill counters a dearth of detail in the poem’s final strophe by aligning its language with that of morning prayers in Catholicism, yet the entire poem is affected by ambiguity present in the final lines: “the promise quiet, / but still ringing in my ear.” Is the quiet promise to stay awake with the unnamed “you” ringing in the speaker’s ear a pleasant reminder? Or is it one of those promises murmured because it’s given begrudgingly? Leaning on the positive connotations of “quiet,” I’m inclined to think the ringing is pleasant. There are things, however, that might serve as an oneiric indication of the opposite. There’s an unsettling image of the “blue-black sky” (is this a murmuration? a bruised horizon? a vision from Hitchcock?), a surreal image in the faint sound of warbles shaking “everything,” and portentous words like “stubborn,” to name a few possible indicators. I don’t linger at length on these final lines to pose them as an obstacle to appreciation, nor to dress their ambiguity in a virtue commensurable with the alterity MacAskill handles adroitly throughout her collection. The ambiguity in the final lines is rare because it is so localized and limited to a few possibilities, thwarting a decisive ending to the poem, yes, but also reminding us that poetry, contrary to the way we sometimes talk about it, is an art guided by feeling, impression, instinct. In saying that readers will intuitively come to their own understanding about the emotional significance of the ringing, I have seldom felt so supported by the poetry. 

          Often when rereading a poem to determine how it captured my attention, I find myself drawn to how MacAskill enacts transformations by leveraging the powers of sound. In “May 6,” a poem describing a birthday held on Alberta’s Bow River, the two-letter preposition “of” appears in eleven of the poem’s sixteen lines. I quote the first three couplets to give a sense of what MacAskill accomplishes by threading the preposition through her poem:

                     Birthday at Bow River: the water sea glass
                     beneath the threat of clouds
                     sunk below the neglect of their houses.
                     An imperative of crows emerges

                     from the pines in a whirl of black arrows,
                     and the broad paintbrushes of magpie wings

Reading even just this excerpt of the poem aloud, one cannot help but perceive the preposition’s phonemes recurrently paired, the vowel articulated in the back of the mouth moving into the consonant articulated in the front of the mouth. The preposition sonically resonates throughout the poem, expressing interrelations on the eponymous dates and imparting a sense of unity to its occasion, the birthday. All the things described, in other words, are made part of the experience of the birthday by the inclusive call of the preposition. This sort of subtle handling of sound is characteristic of Murmurations, especially in poems where the sonic valence of words relates to the avian world. In one poem, for instance, MacAskill’s clipped assonatal language resembles the pained cries of a lonely bird: “I, too, call—failing, I call and I call.” In another poem called “Pigeon,” gaps which substitute punctuation and prolong each line recall the drawn-out, discontinuous cooing of the city dweller:

                     the rock dove’s clotted       call
                     a song thickened
                     like peanut butter in her throat
                     sotto voce on burnt toast


brings me back
my head       on your breastbone
your heartbeat                  thrum

And then there are poems like “Ketch Harbour” that I linger on simply for their euphony. Try reading these lines aloud: “Post rain the water spills like silk, calm / like it’s everyone’s day off, but just / Friday, our secret slip into the future.” The sibilance in the poem’s opening lines recurs like a thread stitched into fabric, appearing in the alliterative “spills like silk” and fricative-heavy “Friday,” then again in the alliterative “secret slip” and fricative “future.” It’s exciting to read a poet so concerned with the sonic architecture of her poetry, one who values meaning and its precarious emergence from ordinary, undifferentiated sound.

          Many of the poems in Murmurations resonate with amor de longh, or love of what is subject to distance, a theme developed by late medieval Tuscan and Provençal troubadours in the context of the Crusades. There isn’t enough space here to properly summarize the tradition, so let me just say these poems (or songs, as they would’ve been called) frequently took as their subject the experience of falling in love and the painful realization that distance has made its fulfilment impossible. These poems helped to cultivate a vision of romantic love in which the male lover loves not the transient, flesh-and-blood reality of the beloved woman, but the emotional turbulence created by the distance between them. In most cases, this distance is made to feel more like a prohibition than a physical situation. (It could also be argued that an inherited version of this vison has led many to suspect the pledges and claims of all love poetry, especially when they are declared by a straight male.) Although she’s not referring to amor de longh here specifically, the remarks on love poetry and representation that MacAskill recently gave in an interview are pertinent to this discussion:

For women writers, for queer writers, there is something inherently subversive about laying claim to our love and our desires, and there’s still a newness to this terrain—the task is not just to insert ourselves, but to redefine the relationship between lover and beloved, and even love itself.[1]

For a queer woman like MacAskill, to write poems involving a distant lover or about a long-distance relationship is to rectify the shortage of female perspectives and virtual absence of queer identities within the amor de longh tradition. This writing is subversive because it counters the tradition’s default heteronormativity, but it doesn’t necessarily ensure that a paradigm in which the beloved becomes an abstraction or a means of indulging fantasy will change or fall away. There’s no guarantee, in other words, that the inclusion of historically sidelined actors will change the roles performed. To really make a meaningful intervention into the amor de longh tradition would mean unapologetically laying claim to love without overindulging the feeling at the expense of the beloved.

          There are no techniques at a poet’s disposal, at least of which I am aware, that would insulate the love poet from the charge that she is overindulging her ego and neglecting the addressed beloved. Since desire is too capacious an experience to be represented in such a way that would be non-egotistical and considerate for all readers, it would seem rash to say unequivocally that Murmurations makes a progressive intervention into amor de longh. There’s something of a wilderness behind a word like love; making unqualified statements about its presence and quality in poetry may over- or underestimate how it is perceived by others. Nevertheless, at the risk of simplification and overemphasis, I insist that MacAskill avoids replicating a vision of love in which distance makes the beloved metaphysically remote by foregrounding the shared experience of being apart. If difficulty arises from this revision of amor de longh, it’s where an experience shared between the speaker and the beloved allows things to pass unsaid. In “Neville Park,” for instance, reuniting with the addressed beloved is said to be a “triumph” over the “months lost to distance, circumstance, / our waiting shed in the vestibule next to days / of fliers, bills, salt clumped / on the welcome mat.” Something more concrete than “circumstance” here would shed light on the measure of relief felt in the vestibule decorated with salty detritus from Canada Post. But moments such as these, where something shared between lover and beloved seems just slightly out of the reader’s grasp, are rare in Murmurations. And perhaps in a collection that frequently considers the limits of comprehension they shouldn’t be considered missed opportunities, but instead moments where the reader is encouraged to be “at ease” with the distance that to some extent always enshrouds a relationship for those who aren’t a constitutive part.

          MacAskill succeeds in expressing a more progressive version of amor de longh mainly because the way she addresses desire and physical distance never seems performed for the reader’s sake, which is way of saying the poems have that quality of being overheard. It’s the result of a honed candidness that neither romanticizes nor downplays the distinct forms of vulnerability that occur in a long-term relationship. It’s present even where MacAskill subjects amor de longh to levity, such as in “Monday,” where a cellphone is ignored because its imagined contents (“emails from Nicole or advertisements for Viagra”) would interrupt the speaker “count[ing] the minutes / till we meet again onscreen—one, two—.” But the most compelling of MacAskill’s amor de longh poems are those in which a conceit weaves the speaker’s experience with that of the distant beloved, fashioning a sense of togetherness from the shared reality of being physically apart. In one poem, “I miss / putting my hand on your leg // while driving,” a small though in no way minor admission about travelling together, leads into intimations “of where we were months ago, and the rivers / that have run through us since – the beds they’ve made in our bellies, deep enough / to suggest permanence.” Just past the half-way mark in “Echolocation,” MacAskill introduces the imperative mood (“Open your mouth and try your lungs”), which lends urgency to the speaker’s wish for the beloved’s singing to traverse distance and resound in her body as if it was an instrument:

                     burrow in my breast – secure my heart in baritone,
                     lean its curves and send back a sketch
                     in the deftness of bio sonar – invisible,

Much of Murmurations speaks to its readers in an imperative mood like that used in “Echolocation,” imploring us in an assured voice to accept uncertainty as something woven into the links that are freely and mutually sustained to some extent in all relationships, no matter their form or intensity.

M.W. Jaeggle is the author of two chapbooks, The Night of the Crash (Alfred Gustav, 2019) and Janus on the Pacific (Baseline Press, 2019). His poetry has appeared in The Antigonish Review, CV2, The Dalhousie Review, Vallum, and elsewhere. He lives in Vancouver on the unceded and traditional territories of the Musqueam, Tsleil-Waututh, and Squamish peoples. He tweets rarely @underapricity.

[1] MacAskill, Annick. “Launchpad: Murmurations, by Annick MacAskill.” Interview with 49th Shelf.

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