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The Tribal Knot

Rebecca'a newest nonfiction book, The Tribal Knot: A Memoir of Family, Community, and a Century of Change is now available from Indiana University Press and Amazon.

Tribal Knot

A Review of Deep Light: New and Selected Poems

from The Georgia Review
by Judith Kitchen


Rebecca McClanahan mixes the old and the new in each of the five sections of Deep Light, deliberately eliminating any indication as to the date or the collection in which a poem originally appeared. Thus each poem is "new"-or seen in new light-and the Selected becomes a whole new book in and of itself. (An index at the end gives a list of new poems and indicates the books from which the others were "selected.") So it is that "First Husband," a poem whose time frame predates many of the other poems and that was originally published in her third book, is found in the last section here. Chronology is not what this collection is about, though it invites the reader to piece words together the puzzle of the lived life through careful use of repeated imagery or anecdote, subtle shadings that reveal certain moments from different perspectives.

By electing this method of organization, McClanahan illustrates a point: for thirty years she has been working with a consistent voice, worrying at the edges of human relationships, so that in many ways her poems have been talking to each other for decades. For a while I tried guessing which poems were new, which were old, which voice was young, which voice was "mature," but in the end I was wrong more than I was right, and that in itself makes an interesting point: McClanahan's evolution has not been one of craft or outlook so much as an ever-widening range of subject matter, accompanied by the emotional maturity to address it in interesting ways. So I find it extremely refreshing to enter Deep Light to rediscover certain poems in a new context and to encounter new ones that add to, deepen, and extend McClanahan's poetic reach.

As in all her previous books, family is central to her Selected. One watches McClanahan's "speaker" as granddaughter, daughter, sister, wife; she marries, divorces, remarries, thinks about her childlessness, attends the deliveries (and the graduations) of her nieces and nephews, ponders the tenuous threads that hold people together: "Without the law, there is no brother, / and no ceremony to mark the breaking," she says in the opening of "Ex-Brother-in-Law," then goes on to imagine his future, and to recount three days in his past as he built a cabinet, perfecting the finishing he could not accomplish in his relationships. Friendship, too, figures prominently in these poems--her friends are often named, included as part of the larger family. But increasingly the poems reach beyond expected ties and take in the lives of others. This may be, in part, a response to McClanahan's move from the family-centered South to a more anonymous life in New York City. People catch her eye, and the result is a fascination with the otherness of those she briefly glimpses. Hovering in that netherworld she explores the unknown life of one of her students, an elderly gentleman she dubbed "James" because he often drove her to the station. "Not James" contains in its title the mix of intimacy and distance inherent in their relationship:
                                         ...The week
before he died he sent a list of mysteries
I should read, I who always tangle in details
before the end is solved. The paper reported
he was found sitting in his car, the dog
beside him freshly walked. It mentioned
a fiancee somewhere, of which he had never
spoken. "Gentle reader," he would have called you,
this man who used to drive me to the train.

The poem builds on simple declarative sentences, twisting just enough that certain words arrest the eye while the ear reads past them: "never" ever- so slightly emphasizes the limits of the speaker's knowledge; "reported" and "mentioned" indicate the secondhand nature of what she knows; "You," however, brings the reader of this poem intimately inside. McClanahan's distinctive trademark might be this ability to incorporate us as readers in the poem so that we see everything from within, even how strange things might appear to her. In her hands, it's a shared experience.

McClanahan takes us deep into marital terrain: its ups and downs, its phases; the pangs of separation and the long, slow work of rebuilding. Young love and "old" love exist side by side in this collection, and each is held to the fire and tested, over and over, as though memory and imagination might "fix" things in both senses of the word. I'm so pleased, when I go to the index, to find that "Fortune" is one of the "new" poems; its final response to the fortune cookie serves both to question and answer:

You will never have to buy
another umbrella. Meaning,

we will never lose, or be lost, again?
Or, the sun will always shine?
Or, the umbrella stashed in the back

of the closet, the one we've stood beneath
at burials, at christenings and weddings
when the weather surprised,

is shelter enough. The plain,
black umbrella with a few broken spokes,
the one we keep forgetting we have.

Interesting, to find myself pleased that a poet who seems, in her poems, to be speaking so directly for herself should have the good fortune to find such acceptance. Such happiness-because this assemblage is filled with great good humor and infectious joy, even as it encompasses death and disappointment. Interesting, because I realize that I read this book like memoir, but memoir held to the candle of insight, shaped to the language of metaphor. Yet Deep Light resists the "confessional." It wallows in nothing; it expands to celebrate the very diversity of experience it covers-the men in Central Park and the Down syndrome children in the swimming pool, the nephew learning to type and the sister who died just before the poet was born, a father's memories of the Korean War and a cab driver who speaks naturally in almost-rhyming couplets. "Trying to Escape Autobiography" has as its epigraph a quote from a nine-year-old girl, "The truth is sticky," and Rebecca McClanahan's truth sticks to her-and to us-in the sheer weight of detail. Oddly, the mass of countable things is pondered in a poem called "'The Invention of Zero," which takes us into a realm where what she can imagine couples with what we know:

asking nothing of us        taking nothing from us
cannot divide us        can only multiply        all our somethings

into nothing         rock us        the last lost child
of the empty-fisted woman         uncounted        unaccountable
rock us in armless arms         back to where we came from

Because she takes us precisely to where we have already been, Rebecca McClanahan shows us how to see things differently, and because these poems represent thirty years of lived and linguistic struggle, they aspire to the "deep light" of the sea so that they, too, might be "lit miraculously from within."

The Van Angels
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