Thomas Fink

A Review of Arlene Ang's Seeing Birds in Church is a Kind of Adieu

Seeing Birds in Church is a Kind of Adieu
Arlene Ang
Cinnamon Press
Gwynned, Great Britain, 2010
ISBN: 978-1-907090-06-6

Arlene Ang’s poems in Seeing Birds in Church is a Kind of Adieu persistently construct imagistically acute narratives of solitude, absorption of wounds, physical and/or material decay, shattering loss, the dying process for the one leaving and the one(s) remaining, and melancholy mourning. However, I do not think that these thematic developments are by any means the whole story.

In “A Sun that Isn’t a Source of Heat But Instead Paints Its Grief on the Walls of a Private Room” and “Fishbowl” (8-9), the speaker is situated in a dark room where mourning is taking place, and the action of each poem is the deepening of an estrangement, a discomfort generated by haunted perception of objects in relation, including art works. Here is the first half of “A Sun….”:
The mirror is a lesson in stillness, in watching the room,
as it takes place behind your left shoulder.

Like a mother, the clock wipes its face over and over
with its hands.

The wine glass in one of the paintings now appears
to the right of the bird with the broken wing.

A stray wind sucks the curtains into a perverse tango.

You watch a rat occupy that portion of the room
where you were told to sit and have a drink. (7)
“The mirror” in the first line could be an actual mirror that permits a surveillance capability that the eyes lack. What “takes place” in “the room” behind the addressee’s back, after all, could be dangerous. On the other hand, a painting, source of ekphrasis, can mirror a real room and action that has already occurred in it. The simile characterizing the real or painted clock’s repetitive motion is jarring, not only because the maternal is conflated with the mechanical, but because a mother is not noted for wiping her own face bur rather, her child’s. The third strophe further teases us with ambiguity; “the wine glass” may be “in” a painting in a room, but the reality of an actual glass in the room could “follow” the representation, and by the time the rat makes its charming appearance, “you” can either be reluctant to obey the host’s command or feel secure in the sense that you see a painted depiction of a rat.

But what if this painting represents the actual room and even anticipates what, at the moment of the speaker’s experience, “takes place” in it? I need not belabor the point that all of this speculation occurs because of a text, in which both room and painting reside—a text whose title can marshall personification, “sun” as “painter” of grief on “walls” and canvases. Language enables the double sense, as the “perverse tango” of the curtains is a process also readable as a static image, wind-influenced “tangle.” The rest of the poem does not precisely resolve the question of what kind of “room” we are supposed to be “in,” and especially whether painting and surrounding environment are enacting the same drama:
There is another hand, scarred where an extra finger
was surgically removed.

Dusk leads the sun away for its own good.

Candles are lit to represent soul and the burning
of material effects.

Now the hand is brushing the hair of a dead woman
into some semblance of order.

Or beauty. (7)
The sun removal and other actions are processes that might be occurring in the snapshot of painting or in the room. The intense starkness of the last three images may seem to make the representation/reality problem trivial compared to the need to create “order” and/or “beauty” in order to give the dead their proper respect and to survive grief of an absence without possibility of return. However, the repeated word “now” (along with the infinitive “to represent”) calls attention to prior temporal ambiguity as a condition that persists. What is happening now? What was happening then? Is the goal of “order” and “beauty” in the name of human dignity and value able to have a life that is separable from the kind of encoding, decoding, and overall performative structures that an elegy, a memorial gesture or service, a painting, or a movie involves?

Ang’s elegiac writing—exemplified by the title, “A Study of Loss” (42-43)—insists on a proliferation of “ghost stories” that haunt with the problem of separating the real and palpable from the flickering imaginary. Hitchcock might approve, or rather, Hitchcock and Bunuel might enjoy absorbing Ang’s poetic dramas together: “His nothingness doubles into ants/ on the counter. Between the body he is,/ and the body he isn’t, there’s a refraction/ of light” (“Refraction,” 53). In “Dream Experiments Invoking Polaroids,” who is dreaming about or absorbing the presence of whom needs to be sorted out, if we can:
Before my mother goes to bed
bearing the extraction of her breast, she has
to walk away from me.
She keeps slipping on the floor.
She is halfway to saying
goodbye. Instead she turns around
and takes a snapshot
of my face looking in on her
from the French window. (44)
In the opening lines, it appears that the speaker’s mother is a breast cancer patient who realizes that her “grounding” in life is “slipping away”; evidently, she is close to death and needs to find a way to say farewell to her daughter, not only at the end of a visit, but forever. However, her active gesture of taking “a snapshot,” mediated as it is by the “window,” begins to suggest that the daughter is dying in a hospital, and the mother—even if she, too, is physically afflicted—needs a way to enable her child to survive in memory. Matters get more complicated:
                                        She slips again.
The nightdress climbs her hip
and shows the moon
all the veins where the blood went
wrong. She is weeping now.
The picture in her hand has captured
only the wedge of my red shoe.
In the next five hundred dream states,
she will explain to everyone
this is how much she loves me,
that I will always remain a living person to her. (44)
While the inadequate picture of a shoe and not a face indicates the failure of the mother’s project to preserve the project, the sense that all representation involves “slippage,” Ang’s sudden reference to “dream states”—considerably more than a year of them, it seems—returns the poem to the first word of its title rather than the last. The first sixteen lines are now recontextualized as the depiction of a dream—but whose dream: the mother’s or the daughter’s? Emily Dickinson wrote dreamlike poems from the perspective of a dead speaker re-experiencing her own dying and witnessing her funeral, and here, Ang invokes such a vantage point: the daughter either dreams of her own posthumous existence in the grieving (and ailing) mother’s determination that the child will “always” live and shares that dream with us, or she recounts what she imagines to be her mother’s nightmare of serving her. The poem’s last few sentences do not resolve the problem but make it more palpable:
The soundtrack is that of a body crossing
itself over and over. She has
no notion of how little they understand
what she says. It’s been like this
every time: we meet, we fail
in our attempts to take photos of each other,
we don’t talk, we don’t go into details—
like which one of us is dead. Or isn’t. (44)
Strangely bridging the visual and auditory, the opening image of this passage puns on “crossing”: either the body—whether the mother’s or the speaker’s we do not know—keeps seeming to move between life and death or it obsessively performs a religious gesture. The poet uses the idea that a third party, “they” who witness the mother’s behavior, cannot process her communication, not as a problem to work through, but as a parallel to the mother/daughter barrier. The statement that they “meet” could refer to an illusory meeting in a dreamscape. Perhaps the one who is alive has a dream whose purpose is to “experiment” with making the deceased other “present” through the “invocation” of “Polaroids,” a trope for the work of memory. But a dream has so much condensation, displacement, secondary elaboration, and other distortions that the dreamer cannot realize a satisfactory memory of “talk” and going “into details.”

Another reading is that mother and daughter are both alive and, while asleep, dreaming of the other as a present absence in need of representation by a photo yet eluding such beneficial depiction. And yet a possibility of quasi-literal interpretation can also be supported. Both are alive, and the communication difficulty that occurs when they meet is that they have such immense fear of the other’s future death that this “dream” of death already haunts (in fact, dominates) their perception of the present encounter and disables their opportunity to “talk” and “go into details,” because the substance of their interaction is a futile effort to represent the other as “a living person” against the melancholy sense that the other “isn’t.” If all one’s energy is devoted to “photographing” another, how can intersubjective understanding and unfettered empathy take place?

At the beginning of this review, I cautioned against a reading of Seeing Birds in Church is a Kind of Adieu that is too insistently thematic. The process of locating what is elusive in the themes is crucially important. Arlene Ang’s highly charged poetry not only emphasizes in multifarious ways that “overripe fruit bruises easily” (64) and that “the dead refuse to be buried” (16) but that many layers of fiction, intricately constructed perspective, and mobile desire complicate any attempts to come to terms with living, dying, and loss of others: “Documents are easily/ misplaced between pages 13 to 59, the weather/ subject to misinterpretations like elephants” (80).

Thomas Fink is the author five books of poetry, most recently Clarity and Other Poems (Marsh Hawk, 2008), as well as Autopsy Turvy(Meritage, 2010), a book of collaborative poetry with Maya Diablo Mason, and two books of criticism. His paintings hang in various collections.
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