Marilyn Bowering, Soul Mouth (Holstein: Exile, 2012). Paperbound, 120 pp., $16.95.
Balancing lyricism and the poetic image is a challenge for any poet, and it is one that Marilyn Bowering faces head-on in Soul Mouth. Bowering’s perspicacious and well-measured voice guides readers through a series of poems about her intellectual, spiritual, emotional, and poetical growth. No one can ignore the thoughtful ambition of Bowering’s poems: her radiant images combine to form an expansive and lyrical collage. At times, though, this reach feels a bit too effortful because of an intrusive lyricism. However accomplished Soul Mouth may be, Bowering’s individual poems often feel weighted down by the inwardness of her lyric.
Bowering covers a lot of ground in Soul Mouth, and she does so with an impressively consistent voice. She includes poems about her childhood and adolescence, such as “Sixteen.” In this poem, Bowering offers pleasant, youthful scenes: “I’d never thought a task / so gently could unmask / and open with a kiss— // slow barges on a river’s / restless movement.” There is an admirable poetic skill here: the sibilant lines that, despite a fragmenting dash and space between stanzas, flow as calmly as the final image of running water. The poem sounds nice; the image fits. That Bowering can bring as much precision to a poem about her youth as to one about the Aiguille du Midi in France speaks to her talents: “and the blue rock of his face, / and his hair black with ice, / and he shone—how to say what he was? // How do you not let go of the essence? / I asked him, meaning / the upthrust of earth, / the stars on their travels, / himself and all marvels.” (“Chamonix”) One of Bowering’s better passages, this excerpt exemplifies an accomplished crafting of momentary patterns in her poems. She transitions from the anaphoric “ands” to the productively strained pairing of rhetorical questions that bind her stanzas to the faint halfrhyme of “travels” and “marvels.” The pacing here is spectacularly graceful and balanced. These are the qualities of Bowering’s voice that keep her collection coherent, regardless of some obviously different poems concerned with various eras of the persona’s life.
Occasionally, Bowering seems to have a hard time allowing images to complete themselves, and this is where her lyricism proves detrimental to the overall effect: the “I” that guides readers walks them to a conclusion, whereas it would be preferable to see the conclusion (or lack thereof) manifest more organically. The result is a number of poems that end with uninspired abstractions. Compare, for instance, the final two stanzas of “Fish”: “The squint of my eyes, the gaff nearby— / my arms were sore and the reel too shrill— / the fish flipped up like a small cache of silver, / then we watched it lie still. // Let it go, my father said. / But my hands were raw, / and all over the world / there were wide pink mouths / that could never be filled.” The penultimate quatrain is nicely done: Bowering moves between the scene and the “I” with a fairly natural rhythm, the curt rhyme of “shrill” and “still” feels reasonably useful, and the poetic image of the flipping fish is focused and direct. The final stanza, however, with its move from “raw” hands to the innumerable “pink mouths,” represents an unnatural push toward conclusion. These laboured endings tend to detract from Bowering’s more skillful handling of very local, specific poetic images.
There are many similar endings to Bowering’s poems. The persona in “Breakdown,” for example, ruminates on the destruction of her mother’s photographs by a flood. The poem ends flatly: “there was no way, now, to prove / what she’d been, / who she was.” The somewhat clichéd sentiment of a lost identity resurfaces in the last lines of “When I close my eyes”: “they show me what I have lost / and what I can never recover.” There isn’t much to hold onto in such poems: the lines themselves lack the vitality one finds in “Chamonix,” and so the emotions feel, at best, esoteric and, at worst, inauthentic. Other poems end on rhetorical questions that are less effective than they could be: “God, in your certainty, / have you built all this just for me?” (“Firebox”) or “Who will put the light of kindness into our children’s / faces, and how will they know?” (“I have to be still and the water”). Such poems reach for an epiphany in which the reader cannot always share. Whatever significance these conclusions may have, it is too firmly rooted in an insular lyric. To be sure, Soul Mouth’s best poems are those in which Bowering doesn’t force the poem’s completion. There is something very fruitful about an “I” that portrays scenes and meaning naturally without embracing a compulsion to cultivate an ending. These compulsions generally lessen the impact of Bowering’s typically effective (and affective) poetic images. Readers will find it most rewarding to focus on these images: captivating portrayals of a generally pleasing lyric engagement with a personal past.
—J. A. Weingarten