(Graywolf Press, 2016)
May Day, the name of Gretchen Marquette’s debut collection of poetry, is richly ambiguous. On the basis of the title poem, and another called “Song for the Festival,” one might think the central metaphor of the book is a spring celebration commencing rebirth. However, given the elegiac subject of many of these poems, the reference may also suggest “Mayday,” an internationally-recognized radio distress signal created by Frederick Stanley Mockford to approximate the French m’aider (“help me”). That Marquette seems fully aware of this ambiguity is evident in the aforementioned title poem, where decay and renewal exist simultaneously: “Somewhere it’s the last snow of April and the dead dog knows.” There are, in fact, many “lasts” in May Day, which braids love and loss through three thematic strands: restrained laments for the death of a brother in war; psychologically-precise accounts of a dissolving affair; and poignant moments of childhood longing. In “Boy,” for instance, Marquette recalls her brother’s final deployment: “Last night, the phone rang. / Afghanistan. December.” Likewise, in “Montana,” one of the collection’s few prose poems, hindsight articulates the confusions of lost love: “[I]t didn’t matter anymore […] That last night, you knew it, even though I didn’t yet.” If the refrain from “I Know One Thing for Sure” is “I was born first,” it echoes against the inevitability of what follows: hands tracing “the sockets of my closed eyes.” In each strand, m’aider reverberates with the visceral clarity of a wounded animal crying into a canyon, making May Day one of the more moving debuts of poetry I’ve encountered in years.
From a technical standpoint, Marquette builds lyric tension with a refined, expertly-lineated prose. Though a widely used aesthetic in contemporary American poetry, the poet’s handling of this style is distinctive. Particularly effective is her ability to communicate complex ideas in a brief compass. Consider the final lines of “Split:”
I wanted. I wanted to go on
wanting. Is this any different
than any animal want,
to go on breathing
in order to love someone?
Nobody wants their life
to become unrecognizable to them.
In just seven lines, an admission of longing is reinforced with gentle insistence; this leads rhetorically to an affirmation of love, which is tied not only to the life force but, as suggested in the final couplet, our sense of identity and purpose.
The above passage also shows Marquette doesn’t separate animal from human worlds. Sometimes the connection is realized metaphorically, as in “Elsewhere,” a poem about the heat of love’s arrival and its inevitable burning away:
is a trap. I recognize
places I’ve slept
despite every branch broken
and the new snow.
Initially metaphorical, the fox image continues more subtly in the following stanza, where Marquette’s love quest is equated with the wanderings of this animal. In “Powderhorn, after the Storm,” she offers a touching allegory in which a literal storm has caused her to snap at one of her fearful dogs. Once that storm has abated, Marquette atones for her momentary “cruelty” by letting the animal drink water from her cupped hands. Throughout the entire poem, her emotional connection to the dog is as nuanced as if it were a child or a lover.
More than any other beast, deer take center stage in May Day. As symbols of beauty, grace, and erotic pursuit, they are also harbingers of disease and famine that drive them to acts of desperation. They therefore make ideal images for Marquette’s ruminations on loss and desire. In “Doe,” an injured deer’s struggle is juxtaposed to Marquette’s wounded heart:
The doe lifts her head. Sometimes
the deer has a split
ear. Sometimes the doe
is made of bone, the femur
warped, broken and healed.
How would it be, to lie
in wet grass, or snow,
leg broken—to need water, to get up
again? Don’t think on it too long.
I know I’d die of thirst.
Marquette conflates the deer’s physical struggle (the “split / ear”; its “warped, broken and healed” bones) with erotic frustration and emotional turmoil (“to lie” and “die of thirst”), a connection that becomes fully-realized in the poem’s final line: “Why are so many love stories tragedies?” In “Colossus,” an adult woman remembers wanting during childhood to be brought repeatedly to an enormous buck sculpture “[o]n the outskirts of town.” Five densely described stanzas map the journey and effectively delay the encounter until, “Up close, / you couldn’t see him anymore.” It is an astute examination of desire, where actual fulfillment never quite matches one’s longing:
[…] I always wanted to be taken to him,
but the closer I drew, the more it was snuffed out—
what burned in my chest.
Ironically, the lover experiences an intensity of ardor only absence provides. Marquette extends this notion to the familial plane in “Trophy,” another poem where deer offer the central image:
[…] my brother vowed to build a barn
to hide deer during hunting season—
an old story we tell to watch him flush.
Years later, when her brother returns from war, the tender instincts of his youth have given way to an unyielding callousness. Marquette introduces this turn again through deer imagery:
On highways, the inside out
of a deer—viscera slick, shocking
as a stranger’s nude body.
Yesterday, he said soldiers in Iraq
call tattoos meat tags—hard
glint in his eyes.
Other brother poems in May Day tell of a second deployment to Afghanistan, where he dies in combat. This knowledge imbues the ending of “Trophy” with an additional poignancy, and the story furnishes the collection with some of its most affecting poems. “Dear Gretel” asks a series of heartbreaking questions while pursuing this theme through popular folklore; “Gregory” leaps backward and forward in time as her brother’s path to manhood reveals “he was already less ours.” In such poems, Marquette avoids sentimentality through a combination of imaginative play and emotional restraint. “Macrocosm/Microcosm,” for example, develops a series of curious, seemingly random associated leaps that build toward yet delay the revelation of the final stanza:
Either the man who will kill
my brother does not exist,
or else he has been breathing for decades
under the Iraqi sun.
Only in hindsight does Marquette’s approach reveal itself as an inevitable strategy for facing the awful truth. The effect is startling.
Startling is a useful word to describe many of the poems in May Day. Consider what is (and isn’t) communicated in the three-line poem “Lost:”
Weeks after the last time, she bled.
It was startling. There would never be anyone
made from the way he needed her.
This devastating cry is tempered by the affirmative power of language: one focuses less on the sadness of the experience and more on the epiphany in the first half of the second line, as if the voice of this poem stands outside itself in awe of the way in which knowledge has been revealed to her. Similarly, in the final lines of “Mule Trail,” the pain of separation, tempered by objective self-assessment, is understood in positive terms:
What does it mean to be in love? As it turns out
the second best thing that can happen to you
is a broken heart.
Marquette mines themes as old as poetry itself. But if May Day is essentially a suite of goat songs charting the pains and pleasures of living and loving, these are poems of our time, enlivened not only by her astonishing use of language, but by her insistent generosity. In “A Poem about Childhood,” a young girl asks her mother for pajamas; the mother will not buy them for her, so Marquette makes eye-contact with the girl and buys them for herself: “You didn’t like them, / but you chose them […] [and] wore them all summer.” Here, as elsewhere in May Day, we encounter those whose sufferings make us stronger and more human through our attention and sympathy. It is more than a fitting consolation for embracing a world filled with, as she claims in “What We Will Love with the Time We Have Left,” the collection’s final poem, “All the furious living” and “All the furious dying.”
TONY LEUZZI's books include the poetry collections Radiant Losses, The Burning Door, and Meditation Archipelago, as well as Passwords Primeval, a collection of his interviews with twenty American poets.