Maureen McLane on “That Man,” “Genoa,” and “Aviary”


At Work

The winter issue of The Paris Review includes three poems by Maureen McLane. McLane has published two books of poetry, Same Life (2008) and World Enough (2010), along with several studies of British Romanticism. She teaches at New York University and lives in Manhattan.

You wrote about poetry as a critic and scholar for several years before you published your first collection. Were you writing poems all the while?

Yes! in a boom-and-bust way—which is the way I was living as well. I’d been writing poems since college, in several modes, feeling my way into and out of different, mainly lyric idioms. I was interested, too, in something like a poetics of not-communicating, or of not-prematurely-communicating. By the mid-’90s, I had completed a manuscript, most of which precedes and is distinct from Same Life, my first published book; a friend thinks I should publish that first manuscript as “Almost Lost.”

What changed between the unpublished work and the poems of Same Life?

Same Life encompasses twelve years of poems, some of which overlap, in time and preoccupation and style, with the first manuscript. So there is some continuity: an interest in lyric sequences, for example. I think one shift was an increasing openness to, even an insistence on, a range and simultaneity of commitments—to erotic lyric but also invective, to compression but also expansion in some essayistic poems like “Excursion Susan Sontag.” I think, too, that by the time I put Same Life together, I had gotten some mythic-mindedness out of my system. And in the mid-2000s, a couple of artist’s residencies allowed me to focus even more intently on my work; that was an enormous boon, for which I am hugely grateful. Another not-unrelated fact: My life situation changed a lot in the ’90s, including the end of my marriage, and certain energies were probably released into what became Same Life.

One of the poems you’ve published in this issue, “That Man,” is an erotic lyric, and also a translation, or maybe an imitation, of Sappho’s Fragment 31. Catullus was the first to translate it, I think; then everyone did. Was there a prior version you especially liked or disliked?

You know, I didn’t have in mind one specific translation of Fragment 31, though I have returned often to Jim Powell’s Sappho: A Garland, and I’ll often go back to the Loeb. I have an interest in anything Anne Carson does, and she has translated and written on this fragment, as well as the whole corpus. Susan Stewart has wonderfully astute things to say about this poem, too. I think for me it is supersaturated, with many layers; in the Greek, the poem moves toward a famous evocation of a kind of love- or anxiety-struck synesthesia (“and I am greener than grass,” et cetera) and a kind of sensory meltdown. In my version, I took up the dramatic situation, the erotic triangle, and the intensity and intimacy of address. I’ve lived with translations of Sappho’s lyrics for many years, and, as so often happens, what’s in the mind structures one’s experience, as when some years ago I found myself in an analogous situation—with the difference that “he” seemed to me no god. This all lay somewhat dormant but distilled itself years later into “That Man,” and so I could say that I wasn’t drawn to the poem so much as the poem drew me to it; it read my life. Or I was read by it.

Alongside the eroticism, there’s a lot of food in your work: supermarket food, Taiwanese pigs’ ears, spatchcocked fowl. But this isn’t the poetry of a gourmand. There’s a lot of ambivalence, sometimes even guilt, mixed with all this eating. Am I reading you right?

I think you are. I myself was amazed to realize how much food there was in Same Life, some months after it came out, and there’s a lot of consumption in various senses in World Enough, too. I’m preoccupied by what we take in and what we put out, in all registers: food, air, water, media chat, music, poetry. Do you want to swallow it, or spit it out? Can you metabolize it, or will it pass through you unabsorbed? These seem to me really basic and intimate questions.

Food probably surfaces in my recent book in as many different ways in my poems as, say, the weather: It appears in poems of pleasure, of idyll (“Songs of a Season,” “Saratoga August”) but also in bureaucratized supermarket displays (“Poem” from Same Life). And some dishes become virtual allegories of cultural encounter (there’s a terrible mouthful)—the buridda in “Genoa,” for example.

I’m glad you mentioned that buridda. The ending of the poem is very in-your-face. Or maybe it’s in-the-nuns’-face, a rejection of their sisterly renunciations.

Well, some of those nuns were really in our faces, yes, and I experienced their language as a series of provocations and assaults. (Others, I should say, were lovely and sponsoring and terrific teachers. And I should apologize here to Sister Lucretia [R.I.P.], who was actually one of the benign ones, although a bit scary in her be-wimpled great age.) The force of the ending to “Genoa” may arise from a kind of overcoming, a rejection of the ascetism that was so attractive to me as a child and in different ways as a younger person, that Catholic (but not only Catholic) hostility to sensuality, Mariolatry, official music, prayer, et cetera. As a child, and still to some extent, I hated the everyday; I had a crazy longing for transcendence, and where that could happen in my world was through religion, and to some degree, music and language. But the contempt for the world is a dangerous contempt, and it’s often aligned with a contempt for women. Thus my ongoing interest in veiled women, wherever they are.

Reading your poems, individually or as collections, I have a sense of contraction and release, lungs and Slinkies. Can you say something about form?

Thank you for these wonderful images for the poems and the collections—both organic and mechanical, or fabricated. Yes, I find myself oscillating between extremely dense, compressed, sometimes epigrammatic poems and longer sequences, and this alteration has been important to me in putting together my books: creating an experience that I hope is both intense but also aerated. I’m interested in that both across a book and within longer poems—for example, in “From Mz N: the Serial,” more “narrative” free-ish verse poems are punctuated by little hyper-formal blips and bulletins: a sonnet, short rhyming quatrains. I suppose I have an opportunistic relation to specific forms, if not to “form” tout court—some forms present themselves as occasions for play, discovery, variation, like the triolets in “Songs of a Season.” And forms are also vehicles for haunting as well as inhabiting—or so I’ve found with ballads.

“From Mz N,” since you mentioned it (and since I like it), ends with you and Wordsworth on an airplane, or maybe a mountain, zooming up into a version of the sublime. But you seem to be writing against the long Romantic poem as much as with it.

Yes, I suppose ambivalence is a core muse, especially ambivalence about “romanticism.” “From Mz N” could be read as a kind of Wordsworthian “Growth of the Poet’s Mind” (scaled way down), but I also have a strong counter-impulse. Then again, the long Romantic poem is itself a very mixed thing. We tend to think of Wordsworth’s “Prelude” or maybe even Byron’s “Don Juan,” or Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” but not so much about, say, Walter Scott’s metrical romances. Not that I recommend those as models, but … on many days I do feel Americans are still (often unconsciously) writing under the shadow of romanticism, its possibilities and limitations, and I try to reckon with that explicitly in some poems and also in my other life as someone who writes on romantic poetry and culture.

“Aviary” is one of your spare, compressed poems, about a very un-Romantic bird. Marianne Moore has a poem about pigeons, too, but hers are homing pigeons—gallant messengers, war heroes—whereas yours are crumb bums, almost earthbound. Real New Yorkers.

Crumb bums! That is right … You know, I was in the Princeton University Art Museum last week, looking at some of their Chinese paintings and scrolls, and one featured a group of doves, and they looked just like our humble pigeons, if perhaps more sleek and elegant. I’ve always been fond of those urban co-dwellers, pigeons and squirrels, though many find them annoying pests; I’m not (I confess) a rat lover, yet. It’s not clear to me that we, humans, are not pests, and along these lines the pigeon is a great animal to think with. I never think of pigeons flying. And one doesn’t think of them singing—they’re not nightingales, skylarks, owls, already decked out for lyric or philosophy. As for the city, well, maybe it’s a great infernal nest on the ground and we’re constantly fouling each other’s nests, like cuckoos.