Threshold by Marilyn Bowering (Leaf Press, 2015)

So much of writing poetry is a recuperative act, a straining back to the past, a negotiation with the dead. In the tradition of such collaborations as Ted Hughes and Fay Godwin’s 1979 collection, “Remains of Elmet,” and joining other albeit more formally innovative engagements with lost poets like Catherine Graham’s “Her Red Hair Rises with the Wings of Insects” where she overtly commingles her own lines with those of Dorothy Molloy’s, this hauntingly-designed combo of text and image by Bowering and her photographer-daughter Xan Shian, offers a strange and moving homage to three-centuries-ago exiled Hebridean poet, Mary McLeod.

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Further evidence of the fact that deep travel and committed research methods yield dividends for a writer in the creation of uniquely honed material, and that poets, in particular, seem drawn to rebel subjects, “Threshold” roams through biographical tracings, perceptions of landscape and contemporary allusions to such tragedies as Air India and the conflict in Afghanistan. The lyrics are spare, pregnant with breath, skeletal as the quest for the missing. Do we know why Mary was exiled? Do we understand why she was buried facing down? Nothing that happened three centuries ago can be entirely clear.

And so the poems hint sparsely, often satisfyingly, as in the piece, “Listen” (where the asterisks represent breath gaps and the quote marks italics): A thousand * coastlines/and they are all * seal-haunted/over all of them * birds * sweep/near all of them * are mountains/and I keep on asking/where * is there anyone/to look * at ‘me’/by the water’s * edge” and others less so due to their disjunctively weird images like “Your body restless/as a saucepan in the rain” and flat, rather than lilting or startling closures, like “tell me everything/to be a friend.” Separated into two sections: Cauldron and Bees, the former of which can more directly address Mary’s biographical bones and the latter that makes leaps from her substance to personal sojourns (though both parts also meld to my mind), “Threshold” feels like it’s channeling a fusion of W.S. Merwin and Song of Songs, along with of course McLeod’s outlawed verse.

The poems are enriched by Xan’s companionate photos, their Eugene Atget style of denuded, unpeopled zones and moments, some scarred with subtle sign posts of humanity (shadows, marquees, the back of a head, a blurred hand.) But this stanza perhaps best sums up Bowering’s intent in writing this oeuvre of soothing disturbance, the”limen” place that is “Threshold”: not everything/is about love or hate/it may be a simple gift/of shredded time.

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