|Arsenic Lobster poetry journal||
by Maureen Alsop
Augury Books (2013)
Read “Captopromancy”, from Mantic, originally published in Arsenic Lobster
In Mantic, Maureen Alsop turns over the decision-making to exotic, archaic divinations, to the shapes of mountains, the trajectory of arrows, the direction of bird calls. To swords, daggers, knives. To walking around a circle of letters until dizzy you fall down on the letters or in the direction to take (“Gyromancy”). With roughly half the poems in this 45-poem collection taking the form of a divination—floromancy, necromancy, eromancy, any mancy you fancy—Alsop, the fearless querent, has a poem that bears witness to the results.
That the results feel at once utterly random and utterly right is perhaps no surprise, given divination’s directive to order the disordered facets of existence, to impart insight to a question or problem. The lexicon reads as serendipitous, the imagery deeply symbolic. Alsop is brilliantly incantatory, each poem conveying the sense it was transcribed while under a spell, and just as lush and strange as you would expect.
Both oracles and seers in ancient Greece practiced divination. But while oracles were thought to have a direct connection to the gods, seers were simply the translators of presumably god-given signs. Seers also used various rituals to attempt to decipher such signs, and could only answer direct yes-or-no questions. Here, Alsop diverges from their traditional modus operandi, for while these poems certainly offer an authoritative consistency of voice and tone—one both innocent and ancient—Alsop does much more than offer simple affirmations or negations, seeming to examine, exhaustively, every possible angle to a given issue.
One senses that this visionary has seen things of the brightest good and darkest evil, and it is now the time of reckoning, the November of her soul: There is no single script. / Only the last three orders / of breath made before silence. Night has / given me my wide addiction. (“Thumomancy”) Who loves the sinner but hates the sin: When T. said he loved me / every teacup in the house grew / stained & suffered a chip, the asphalt rippled / like some kind of water. It lashed / at the hedges. And I grew hungry. Desire teetered / in and out of the white-lit house like flies. (“Accidental Sea”).
A regular cast of characters and locations show up in poem after poem: deer, blossoms, water, moss, cabins, bees. And horses. Lots of horses: I believe the horse is my equation. I am to ride a thing called horse. (“Magastromancy”) But lest this all sound a bit new-age, know that this narrator is no flower child. Juxtaposing each poem’s grounding in the beauty of the natural world, there is almost always, inevitably, another foot set firmly in its detritus. For every bucolic brushstroke, a smudge or stain: a Xeroxed orchid in the snow deep garden, a distillery of starlings, a sinking mailbox in the marsh. Everything seems to be deteriorating, decomposing, dying a slow and not so pretty death. Perhaps that’s why the collection begged me to bring it to Coney Island to be read—the sun here is also crazed. (“Notes from the Blue Terrace”).
“Are you experienced?” Hendrix asked. In Alsop’s case, the answer is yes. There is a highly composed, regular irregularity to her somewhat psychedelic syntax, as she invents unique sentence structures which still somehow manage to instruct how they are to be read: Oh please know—feeble I am in telling, as I go now with my assassin—the prairie/ settles in my thumbnail as if a story could be scraped and traced back up / by meditation. (“Radiesthesia”). One learns to count on a sentence never being completed in exactly the way one would expect, and to trust that complex, winding sentences will often be followed up with shorter, more direct ones. The tension and release produces a syntax that is not quite natural, yet not unfamiliar: You’re not special. You’re not not special. (“Ouranomancy”). Call it supernatural, then—sensuous, seductive.
There is endless enjambment: nouns from verbs, subjects from objects, adverbs from verbs, adjectives from nouns: In readiness, the radio / failed. A blueprint of static clamped /over your ears. A gray/ heart clamped your throat. The briefest… (“Epiphany”). The effect of all this back-and-forth is much like that of “Gyromancy,” the dizzying divination which not by accident, one imagines, launches this collection.
Alsop takes additional formal risks, mixing very long lines with very short, couplets with quintets, quatrains with sextets. Sparingly and to great effect, she inserts extra white space in place of punctuation, often in the middle of a line: grasses beyond the town’s cubicle I listened to you / though you were already dead. (“Spring Tattoo”).
I followed Alsop down Mantic’s rabbit role as willingly as the prepubescent girl depicted on the book’s cover seems to be entering into a pact with the water below. I was hypnotized by its Ouija-board-like logic, as if the poems were being spelled out for me before my eyes: an inscription of pigeons, the graffiti of circles, the sun’s library, speech as theory’s mirror, the dark’s lexicon of mosquitoes, the fuck bodies infinite pages.
Alsop is an alchemist, possessing the uncanny gift of rendering the concrete abstract, the opaque transparent: Among the glass trees, specific are the smoke rings, their pale shadows flood an imagined garden. As if in explication of her aesthetic, “Sideromancy” continues: I have attempted to dissolve in singular fire-strikes the familiar arrival of moths.
Alsop has succeeded handsomely in dissolving the familiar: those liminal borders between poem and poet, poet and narrator, narrator and narrative, seer and seen. We are the fortunate voyeurs and trustees of her journey.
Review by Lissa Kiernan
Poetry Editor Emeritus