World Enough, and Time
Reviewer: Lee Rossi
A book of poems is like one of those fabulous creatures from a medieval bestiary—part lion, part snake, part bat—not all the parts convinced that they belong together. Mary Makofske’s World Enough, and Time is such a beast, confessional free-verse narratives conjoined with Metaphysical conceits, formalist exercises side by side with meditations on social and political topics. If variety is the spice of your life, then you will like this book, for it offers Makofske, a restlessly skillful artist, the chance to demonstrate her considerable range.
The book opens with a lengthy section devoted primarily to family. Her parents seem to have enjoyed what for the time was a typically dysfunctional marriage.
their love and rancor
danced like water
on a hot griddle
and rose to steam that still
can cloud my sight
(“In My Mother’s Kitchen”)
In the daughter’s telling, the parents seem to have chosen one another based primarily on their difference in temperament. The father, for instance, embraced disappointment as if it were his destiny:
My father bet always on long shots,
believing in whips and words plunged
on the homestretch into the ear.
As if the future could redeem the past.
Her mother, on the other hand, is an educator, an idealist. In “My Mother, La Profesora, 1938,” we find her teaching Mexican immigrants in Texas, the only Anglo in the class picture. The poem emphasizes the contrast between the students’ prospects (“the future they stare at with steady gaze / gives them nothing to smile about”) and the mother’s optimism (“Isn’t the future / another language she can learn, / a song she can play by ear?”).
No surprise then that Makofske charts a different path for herself, watchful, thoughtful, a bit suspicious, one that avoids the extremes of her parents. In assessing the “Signs” of love, for instance, she recommends unselfconscious kindness and “careless grace” over passion and “sweaty palms.” She is, if anything, too careful, confessing in “Sweet, Bitter, Bittersweet,” (a pantoum) that “turning to stone under stress is my greatest art.”
Personal history, however, is only one side of this multi-faceted artist. As with many poets, the art of poetry is a major concern. “A Tough One” might be one of the finest (and most ironic) meditations on the vocation of poetry that I have ever read. Birthing a poem, the poet tells us, is not unlike a chronic disease:
…Oh, no, it came and went like
malaria. For days or years I was perfectly well,
and then without warning fevered
with stumbling line breaks, shaky metaphors,
the fog of delirium.
In addition to her characteristic guardedness, one notices an enthusiasm for the almost-Metaphysical conceit.
This love of metaphor finds its most extended expression in a series of three poems dedicated to the ampersand. For someone who disdains them as “Symbols that never made the musical cut,” Makofske can’t seem to stop writing about them:
It used to be cicadas
swarming through poems.
I imagine a workshop
training poets to turn
them out, as prisoners
turn out license plates.
“At each crow of that coxcomb, I miss your silence,” she tells the word formerly written as “and.”
Throughout this volume we encounter a probing intelligence. At times she reminds the reader of Billy Collins, whom she resembles in subject and tone. Theirs is a poetry of lawns and fences and neighbors in cars, a comfortable if somewhat cool suburban poetry. In “Philosophy,” for instance, we find her reading an introduction to philosophical thought. She should be planning a fence “at the end / of the carport to hide the hanging / laundry,” but instead she’s trapped inside her own head:
What can we know?
Perhaps the laundry isn’t
there at all, or I’m the only
one who dreams it, dreams the carport
peaked above the nonexistent cars
that ferry me from one dream
Like Collins, she is an imaginative wanderer, and for the most part, her casual rhythms and stanzas resemble his. But Makofske also enjoys writing in stricter forms. This volume offers, for instance, pantoums, sonnets, and a villanelle on aging. Entitled “Another Art,” it echoes and subtly redirects the Elizabeth Bishop poem. Dancing with her husband, she lets him lead, something she does reluctantly, even after many years of marriage. And yet with age has come a greater understanding of herself:
She know her will to fly is mostly bluster;
she’s bound to stiffen, too, if she were freed.
The art of dancing isn’t hard to master.
They glide their aging bodies slower, faster.
Unlike Bishop, whose poem ends in irony and regret, Makofske arrives at acceptance.
Bishop is not the only woman writer who stirs her allegiance. Makofske includes a number of poems dedicated to her poetic heroines: May Sarton, Marge Piercy, Adrienne Rich receive special commendation. It seems that Makofske is the kind of person who needs poetry to survive, a predicament she envisions in a poem dedicated to May Sarton:
Cupped in her hands, the solitude
throbs like a broken bird
splinted with poems.
(“A Woman in the Cloister of Her Mind”)
The standard throughout this book is quite high. Only in the last section, with its focus on war and social discord, does it seem to flag. Here the urgency of her concerns is overwhelmed at times by a certain stridency of tone. The imagery is grim and often gruesome, the language reportorial, with little in the way of understanding or insight to point the reader in the direction of hope.
Yet even in this last section there are lovely moments, as for instance when a group of prisoners in “South African Jail, 1961” stage a dance recital:
The guards are cautious. What can it mean?
One claps out the beat.
The dancers turn in quickening circles
as if they were free.
We are both guards and prisoners, she seems to say, both sides party to a freedom that, resist it as we might, insists on expressing itself.
Citizen of the world, citizen of the larger world of the imagination, Mary Makofske invites us to consider what she has experienced during her long and thoughtful life.