My Girl’s Green Jacket by Mary Meriam
Headmistress Press, 2018
108 pages / Headmistress
Every time one attempts to categorize or pigeonhole Mary Meriam’s poetry, one comes up against “it is and it isn’t.” She is wholeheartedly a lesbian writer, but to reduce her work to identity politics alone would risk missing how she complicates and challenges that label. She is a “confessional poet,” in that her emotional life is undoubtedly the wellspring of her writing, yet these poems have none of the elements of self-indulgence or self-pity with which that maligned phrase is often loaded. And she is a formal poet, in that she favors established forms–sonnets, ghazals, sapphics–and writes in them with incredible skill and sophistication, and yet she is playful with them, knows they are to be loved and respected as living, breathing things but not revered like museum pieces.
Meriam’s previous book, Girlie Calendar, was arranged into sections named after the months of the year, and its title called to mind those tawdry relics which used to hang–let’s face it, still hang–in male-dominated offices, in pubs, and in greasy garages. With characteristic style and subversive wit (Meriam is surprisingly funny, though never cynical) that book joyously reclaimed the phrase, so that her “January” was the nineteenth-century Chinese poet Wu Tsao, her “February” the American poet Elizabeth Bishop.
If her new collection, My Girl’s Green Jacket, has an overarching structure, a thematic glue, it is the weight of the past and the reconciling of lost love. The poems weave emotional tapestries of memory while continually circling back to the quotidian details of the poet in the present: the comfort of bed, visits to farmer’s markets, the view from her house of a constant, yet ever-changing lake. When the speaker’s cat makes an appearance, another damaged thing and another constant, Meriam is happy to touchingly anthropomorphize her:
a recent rescue, scrawny, scared, and shy,
tells me how terrible it was, and that
she loves the fish I give her, and she’ll try
to trust me soon.
The poems gradually give up recurring snippets of personal trauma: lost lovers, a missing sister, a strained relationship with a mother. Details and context are often hidden just out of reach, but this doesn’t feel like conscious technique or obfuscation, but rather gives the effect that one is genuinely eavesdropping on the speaker’s mind as it mulls over events that it doesn’t need to spell out. That it knows only too well.
The first poem in the book, “The Violet Stars of Dream’s Day,” ends with these lines:
If you are good and brave, my dream will sew a blue
elaborate gown with violet stars to rain on you.
The child-like language of fairy-tale (“good and brave”) has already been set up earlier in the poem, with the image of the poet’s dream being “locked inside the monster’s tower.” But this personified dream is no Disney fantasy; it is “cranky, no credit, artsy.” This final couplet seems an exhortation to the reader: be good and brave and my poems will weave their magic. So, in what sense is the reader to be good and brave in the face of these poems? By being open-hearted, by eschewing any ironic detachment when reading them and expecting no such detachment from the words. By being brave enough to listen to a writer whose heart is on her sleeve, taking the risk that while this may leave it open “for daws to peck at” it also will also be exposed, as it must, to the sun and wind, the woods and the lake.
This sense of reality being understood through fairy tale is employed, with similar subversion and dark humor, elsewhere in the book. In “The Sad Palace of Ill Effects,”
The queen had snipped the pecker off her spouse,
the king, and he’d become her lonely bitch,
pretty of face and soft to touch, but sad,
so sad he tossed their daughters in a dump.
There is a temptation to look for autobiography here. In “Mother Farewell,” the speaker remembers her mother stopping the car to rescue turtles on the road as a kind of displacement of the affection she couldn’t display to her daughter:
each turtle shell, for her, another shield.
And in “Ars Poetica,” one of the most moving portrayals of the painful gulf between parent and child that I’ve read, the speaker remembers bursting into tears while watching The Sound of Music with her mother at the cinema and having to be taken out:
…She asked me what was wrong. I said,
“I want to be there,” in the Alps, singing,
twirling with her in sunshine. I was clinging
to song, with nothing real to hold instead.
That the poet’s sexual identity may have been at the root of this conflict is never made explicit, but in another poem “Psalm of the Sweetest Water,” The Sound of Music returns, one of its jauntiest refrains bleakly reconfigured to suggest just that:
I never was, in truth, a daughter,
only a question that couldn’t be asked,
only a problem that couldn’t be solved
These kinds of poems are powerful. And yet the collection ranges wide and has room, in poems like “Life Study” and “Sapphic Palette,” for the playful and the sensual. Indeed, one of the most endearing traits about Meriam’s poetic persona is her tendency, when self-pity threatens, to give herself (in Bob Dylan’s phrase) “a good talking to.”
“Alone in Love”:
Just face it, Mary, time is running short.
Love less, or you will die alone in love.
Stop sucking sour grapes and see this view:
the richly colored fall leaves fall like you.
Meriam is a formalist, but her formalism is not staid or traditional. The long poem “A Political Poem with Emotional Parts” is a rapturous thing in a shifting mix of forms from free verse to sapphics. Towards the end it bursts into a self-proclamation that echoes, but turns on its head, Shakespeare’s stretching of the iambic pentameter line to the limits of despair in King Lear (“Never, never, never, never, never”):
The mellow air breathable and here we go
Lesbian lesbian lesbian lesbian lesbian
She writes extraordinary sonnet sequences like “States,” a kind of poetic memoir-cum-road-movie, which demonstrates Meriam’s mastery of narrative concision and also her distinctive musical voice, as in this vivid description of the messy, clammy awkwardness of adolescence:
…I skinny-dip in stress,
in streams, in drunken parties, drag my comb
against my knots and bungles, always hot.
…and then covers the same thematic ground in the devastating piece of autobiographical prose poetry “Silver Necklace.”
The effect of all this variety and experimentation is not jarring, rather it feels unified and utterly natural. The constant is the voice of the writer herself, unashamedly Mary, reclaiming the poetic “I” from irony and postmodern distance, writing about love–lost and unrequited, feverish and intensely present, love of nature, of people, of home, and of the pleasure and pain of solitude. And yet even more than all this, she is a magical poet. The power of these poems lies in the indefinable in-between space between sophistication and the frightening purity of fairy tale. She isn’t afraid of simplicity or of sentiment. I suspect she would laugh at the idea. She doesn’t appear to be afraid of anything.
Mark McDonnell lives in Staffordshire, England where he teaches English in a secondary school. His poetry has appeared in various journals, and his poem “Communion” was shortlisted for the 2017 TLS Mick Imlah Poetry Prize.