This image they know best:
bright light that denotes
the carnival they have yet
to attend. ..
This image of closer,
the closer they close in on
to secure an image of it.
“Closer” reads like “closure,” and nonetheless could be read as either noun or adjective, each way slyly altering the ultimate interpretation of meaning. What is definitive, however, is that “they” are active participants in the transmission of reference between the reader and these lyrics; some placement is possible. On the subsequent page of the sequence (the book is constructed of untitled lyrics in four titled sections), Maxwell writes:
In this undressing they called steam
for its pace and the lightness with which
they moved their feet from sock holes
so where their ankles had been
their ankles appeared still to be…
…they removed their garments,
for unto each other they undid themselves
individually and undulated their stadiums…
Something is obviously happening here, something concrete in the mind of the poet, but its transfer to language presents the problem of knowing. Not a problem of knowing on the reader’s part, but more on the level of linguistic apprehension and conclusion, so that what emerges in these lyrics is more than a focus on the generic; it is a generating of linguistic guiding and massaging.
Associative logic also plays to Maxwell’s strengths as a writer, as the logic never deflates or disregards the reader. In an intimate lyric, Maxwell writes of the pair’s commingling, as the “she” and “he” become more explicitly a formed union of “they”.
Their favorite knot was a kiss. Loose noose of lips and gruesome
tongue like a torn-open neck or one inside out, shirt-like, should they wear
the body to where bawdy bought all ballrooms where any body can rouge up the cheekbone of a chair by lounging just so.
Maxwell has also stated, this time in an interview, “I am a body, language is bodies, writing is bodies, I am bodies, and we are all inside and outside of one another.” The statement in itself is almost a poem, beautiful in its eloquent simplicity. And this section quoted above illustrates her thoughts best, in how the kiss of the “they” moves from a knot in a noose to a tongue to a shirt, which then moves to a ballroom, and finally returning back to the kiss by evoking the cheekbone. But it is the cheekbone of a chair, anthropomorphically lounging as the reader might expect the “they” to be doing. Circular in its logic, but also very associative, like playing a suggestive word game.
The balance of wordplay throughout the collection could easily fall by the way of annoyance, Heather McHugh-like, but the seriousness of tone (perhaps an appreciation or a respect for poetics) keeps the poems from sounding commonplace, balance being superbly achieved in Maxwell’s writing. Though obvious, the wordplay is never distracting. The repetitive sounds, creating close-homonyms, speak to the elusive and debatable constrictions and limits of language itself (and its reception on the eye/ear) which these poems explore. Maxwell’s clever punning, obvious as it is, never feels like her focus, again demonstrating her ability to control language and, by proxy, her abilities as a poet. Hers is not a hybrid-style, fusing the tenets of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E and “less difficult, more narrative” poetry, as much as it is an emergent voice in younger American poetics which seeks to illuminate the ever-reductive denotation of words as they bounce off one another. Think of Matthew Henriksen or Brian Teare, who both bend the colloquial in a way which galvanizes contemporary American poetry.
This of course, and thankfully, is not the mode of language in which people speak, therefore Maxwell’s stellar poems draw attention to the importance of the genre’s medium; a particular focus on words is a focus on language (read, syntax) and vice-versa. What emerges, to quote Kristeva on poetry, is “language beyond language,” in part always there waiting to be discovered, and in part waiting to be fashioned. ~RS