ORANGES IN JANUARY (Knives Forks and Spoons Press, UK, 2016)
“To read the poetry of Pansy Maurer-Alvarez is to be in the cool presence of a guide to the interior life, to be in a space akin to an art gallery or a library, places dedicated to the art of living. This is a work that manages the difficult feat of being intelligent, intimate and graceful by simply putting every word in its rightful place. It is a gorgeous collection.” Joseph Horgan
“oh, if all oranges tasted like the poems of Pansy Maurer-Alvarez. try them. they’re juicy. their phrases will bounce through your body & fill you with energy. in her new collection Pansy once again renews herself. & in the process she flings open a window in your head. now, come along for the ride.” Lars Palm
Andrea Moorhead’s review of ORANGES IN JANUARY (Tears in the Fence, No. 67 Winter/Spring 2018)
The Particularity of Rooms
Oranges in January, Pansy Maurer-Alvarez, The Knives Forks and Spoons Press, 122 Birley Street, Newton-le-Willows, Merseyside WA 12 9UN, UK, 2016, £9.00.
Invitations in poetry are rare. Too often one observes from the outside or struggles to comprehend what the inside might be. Pansy Maurer-Alvarez invites the reader into rooms that have no metaphorical context, but rather provide the reader with visual clues to the poem’s motifs. The color red acts as catalyst and source for the imagistic, almost pointillist, development of the images.
Where are we? At a reception in an art gallery or at a museum, in a child’s room in Philadelphia, in Egypt at the great tombs, at a noisy party, outside under a strong sun where there are flocks of birds. Autobiographical threads hold the poems loosely together; Maurer-Alvarez often disrupts the narrative line and fabricates false sequels and sequences to avoid the emergence of an overly personal line. These are not lyrical poems; they draw their strength from their particularity, their grounded physical presence in the mental and emotional landscape of the reader. They are objects, in the same way that a painting is an object in its own right. In this sense, Oranges in Januaryis in the Objectivist tradition of George Oppen, whom Maurer-Alvarez quotes in the book’s closing poem.
Who is with us? Among others, the 15,000 people who died in the 2003 heat wave in France, 16th-century-Flemish painter Simon Bening; modernist writers Barbara Guest and Alice Notley, George Oppen, and the 14 poets whose lines were used in Section III to create ‘collaborative’ poems. But who else is with us? Lovers, the author’s father, mother, and grandmother; the author herself.
The book is divided into three sections: ‘In Memory of the Unclaimed,’ ‘Januaries,’ and ‘A Dream of Deliverance.’ Sections I and II form a tightly structured, coherent whole. Section III is quite different. To preserve the integrity of the structural unity set up in the first two sections, Maurer-Alvarez could have ended the book with the title poem of Section III. Although the experimental sonnets and the ‘Seven Video Clips’ are well-crafted texts, they do not provide the supple and subtle shifting between foreground and background, present and past, and inner and external geographies that the other poems do so skillfully.
In Section I, the poems often move towards the complete independence of the narrative voice or towards the fusion of an absent person or time, a natural element, such as a river, and the speaker. The relationship of thought and language to human mortality is clearly conveyed. ‘Coming and Going in Rain’ (22) suggests that the contemplation of a work of art leads to the absorption of the barriers between external and internal realities; memory becomes a thread linking the two spheres of awareness. Art is a vehicle to displace the present, thus allowing the shaping of a memory, not its creation or recreation but the shaping and molding of images and lived fragments. In ‘Valediction,’ a beautifully modulated, evocative poem for her father, Maurer-Alvarez uses language as a sculpting tool, moving her father’s death and absence into a timeless space where she feels that ‘From between your fingers the light / will leave your grasp and follow its trajectory / into night—where the subconscious memory darts’ (34).
In Section II, modulations of physical sensations bring the narrator to a higher spiritual and emotional level. Rooms provoke memories and stimulate consciousness of essential changes in awareness and comprehension. What appear to be dreamscapes are not, in fact, the product of a dreaming state but rather the willful suspension of reality to induce awareness of self and past. The narrator confesses that she has a ‘desire for three-dimensional space within the folds of the reveries I keep hidden most of the time” (61). The section concludes with self-advice: ‘Do not go back to the beginning / and make a promise. / Another moment awakens / and new vocabulary begins to cling to its malleable complexity: / it grows, this time in bright blur, black and orange.’ (69).
There is a great deal to talk about and analyze in Oranges in January. One could analyze themes, images, use of color, and somehow overlook the essential quality of the book: its beauty of expression and complete immersion in the world we know. Its abstractions are our abstractions, the thoughts and feelings we share as human beings moving through and creating worlds we do not always understand or grasp. ‘what wave of love of broken-hearted weariness, honeysuckle by the wayside, crucial memory of beauty that lingers between fingers fingering the bed linens, hair skin and chaos from before recounted memory, when we were once so newborn and that endangered’ (116).
You can read sample poems and further reviews here:
IN A FORM OF SUSPENSION (corrupt press, Paris, 2014)
“These poems inhabit a space of wild observation, offering moments of fused-grammar joy (“mimosa is composed of Seville”), but grounded by a delight in physicality. … Joy, social detail, a love for language, an urban wit, all combine in this book…” Edmund Berrigan
“Feminine, incisive, capricious, and analytical, the poems move the reader with their throbbing pulsations, and cool lacunas. … the “bare literary figurine” becomes a mature woman reflecting on her life, on sexuality, on presence, and the immense potential of language to liberate and redefine the human spirit.” Andrea Moorhead
Mandy Pannett’s review of IN A FORM OF SUSPENSION (Tears in the Fence)
I have been trying to find one word that will sum up the essence of this collection. ‘Sumptuous’ is a strong contender for these poems are certainly that – passionate, sensuous, overflowing with the richness of language. But I need the word ‘instinctive’ as well for these are pieces that defy logic and the linear and go straight to the emotions, bypassing the entanglement of brain cells that would pin down and overlay clear-cut meanings on such devious things as words.
So how is a reviewer to discuss the skill and beauty of these poems in a way that will lead to this different way of understanding? The author herself has written about her thoughts on the language of poetry and said:
‘I feel, basically speaking, that poetry is first and foremost music. Music enters the body through the ear and goes directly to the soul; because words have dictionary meanings and language has grammar, poetry enters the body through the ear and often gets lost running around in circles in the brain. I wanted to skip that kind of understanding process and use language in such a way that these poems would be immediately felt and therefore understood. I’m counting on the fact that the brain automatically, instinctively, makes associations without one having to ‘think and this results in a different but no less valid understanding/ feeling of the poem.’
So poetry in this collection is music and magic lies in the power of associations which, Ariel like, touch feelings not thoughts and which will be unique for every person. ‘In a Form of Suspension’ is rich in such elusive connections. Take, for example, these lines from ‘Moody Stunning Looks’:
the industrial landscape of Iceland
is encrusted with full-throated flyovers, oil refineries
wedding trumpets and tiny lights that swab
a promise what looks like a
or this from ‘Unmistakeable’:
‘a textural thicket;
shell, bone, feather, bare chest, hair pigment
flared out reflections, lizards and chalk, cranes
native of Flanders, a bellyful wielding …
and part is clenched in accordion folds
opening over the linear lowlands of agitated sea fowl.’
No need to search for literal meaning here. The associations each individual brings to the lines is enough.
‘In a Form of Suspension’ provides the listener/reader with a wealth of sound. Words are ‘urgent’, sometimes shouting, sometimes ‘barely above a whisper’. One is ‘an outsider/taut and incandescent, sucking words out of speeches’, events are ‘slippery in a swell swoon’. (‘Perception’)
In ‘Burnt-Orange Saraband’ we have a mention of the stellar women in ‘O sorrowful Spain’ who ‘leap past and brush the husband/they capture and penetrate the sweet hot lull of my paradox/somewhere a thrashing rainfall becomes a superb blue’. Every poem in this book is a ‘textural thicket’ where ‘This slow orange slack unfurls a rococo sway; it makes me feel/feathered and plushed/ …the way blame is exempt from moiré/and the ample illusion is soft, onset/pertaining to poise’. (‘The Beaded Edge’)
Pansy Maurer-Alvarez is the absolute master of the poetic line. This is where her skill and love of language are supreme. We have poems of long lines, short lines, text in blocks, text indented, poems of single lines throughout, prose poems, imaginative uses of white space, varying stanzas, lines that are incomplete, suspended as if in air – poems that are a joy to look at as well as to read. Best of all on every page we are treated to her control, her deft handling of the musical rest, the pause, the perfect line ending:
‘Flux occurs and
accountable conditions begin to negotiate the sweet older tension of a glimpse
just standing there’ (‘A Faint Whim Within Remarkable Humility’)
There is much more to delve into. These are poems with a strong narrative voice, erotic, physical, imagist, musical and vigorous. Even the titles seem to leap off the page: ‘Rapture Stripped of Confetti’, ‘He Comes Weeping and Mattering’, ‘Reflections Upon An Agitated Hello’, ‘By the Fountain Where Sphinxes Spit Water’.
I began this review by saying these are poems that refuse to be pinned down. They still won’t – but they are equally hard to put down. Immerse yourself in them and enjoy.
ANT-SMALL AND AMOROUS (corrupt press, Paris, 2012)
English/French bi-lingual edition, with translations by Anne Talvaz.
WHEN THE BODY SAYS IT’S LEAVING Hanging Loose Press, Brooklyn, 2004)
Harvey Shapiro says, “Pansy Maurer-Alvarez is beautifully tuned in to her self and it’s an interesting self, able to translate all the seen and unseen promptings of the day into colorful, sometimes surreal, imagery and musical lines, making this a rich book, a book of hours for those lucky enough to obtain it.”
Elinor Nauen writes, “I deeply admire the intelligent and passionate poetry of Pansy Maurer-Alvarez, with her ‘courage that looks so light and slightly laughy.’ … Perhaps paradoxically, as a poet she is both distant and painfully close, chilly and burning, ‘covered thinly with cold.’ In a quiet way, her poems even have the ability to make ordinary words strange… This is a wonderful book that will change the reader to the bone.”
“These poems … prowl language and various kinds of joy. Prowl with Maurer-Alvarez’s delighting collection.” Kimiko Hahn
“…she’s envisioning the World in her poetry and not just the backyard scene…” Gary Metras
See one poem, “Bog Myrtle V,” on the Academy of American Poets’ site here: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/16725
DOLORES: THE ALPINE YEARS (Hanging Loose Press, Brooklyn, 1996)
Alice Notley writes, “A jewel box of contrasting sensibility: diamond necklaces and rhinestone poodle scatter pins, emerald drops and public hair brooches. Stretching from Pennsylvania to Zurich and back and out, this fictional sequence of poems is humorous, linguistically sensual, smart and down-home. Our heroine, an adventurous dental hygienist, thinks whatever she pleases, in poems differently shaped from each other and registered by a precise musical ear. A real pleasure.”
Sherman Alexie says, “There is a woman in these poems who loves maps. She knows about all of the best places and how to get to them whether by train, plane, boat, or turnpike. She is a humorous traveler whose ‘legs look kind of nice in the dark.’ After you read these poems, you’ll know that Dolores is out there somewhere and you’ll want to join her.”