Large White House Speaking by Mark Irwin
(New Issues Poetry & Prose, 2013)
reviewed by Danielle Beazer Dubrasky
Mark Irwin’s poems juxtapose the preservation of memory with a poetics of the inaccessible. He asks, “Tell me...how we hear music / in silence, or a dead person’s voice / in our minds (that child’s swing / blown back and forth).” These lines perform a kind of mining through memory that takes us to an edge where sound and language are ultimately inaccessible and are conjured up only through an associative image. The remembered voice is conveyed through an image of absence hermetically sealed in parentheses that can never be completely opened. It is around this point that poems revolve in the collection Large White House Speaking.
The recurring theme of preserving the past is introduced in the first poem, “On Sundays, Sometimes.” Irwin uses language to plumb a line toward memory:
I’ll start in the afternoon and follow the words of a new sentence
...I’ll open a photo album and descend
into its cellar where people are walking toward me, out from
the white chancel of each corner
In these lines, time is transformed into place and place represents a time preserved. “Memory is love’s quarry,” a phrase from the poem “Creation,” describes this fusion. In “April,” the fusion exists through a link between a father’s football helmet and a bronze Corinthian helmet. The former is found in an attic and is described as “scratched and dusty in the dormer’s blast of sun.” This family artifact is decaying from the elements. But a memory has preserved another image associated with the father—a brassy pole and shiny firetruck from the speaker’s childhood. A brightness exists in memory that becomes dull in the present. That brightness returns when one literally touches the past: “In London once / I touched a bronze Corinthian helmet whose pitted crown / was dented from blows.” This helmet corresponds with the football helmet, yet its existence conveys a certain defiance of time that the other helmet does not have.
Irwin’s poems explore both a desire for the past be tangible and the unnerving discovery that sometimes only abstract words can be a source of preservation. “April” expresses one of the few moments when the desire to feel the sensations of the past is fulfilled. The poem “Elegy” takes the opposite view. There is again an attempt to revive the past in the lines, “I am polishing the lens of a telescope to make / the distant more bright.” However, here the past is represented by a daughter and a marriage each lost in some way. There is no preserved artifact in the attic nor in a museum to represent what is gone, what cannot be retrieved: “—A glove, a ball, a house collapsed. A carcass of vowels wept.” In “Elegy” the speaker seeks objects and hears them from decaying letters that become a strange metaphor of absence. The house with its inhabitants is no longer intact. These interior letters that provide shape to words are simply sounds. It is the sealed, parenthetical phrase turned inside out with the loosened letters falling into a void.
The poetics of the inaccessible is aided by telescopes and telescopic poems, as in “Augenblick” which begins by looking into the eye of a dead robin then shifts to a glimpse of the setting sun into which the speaker sees “closer far.” In that instance, the speaker sees a moment from his past: “I remember Katherine now… / Some things you can never hold.” The poem “Ghost” addresses this relationship with the past head-on:
Sometimes your name’s
a dress like an iron/ bell the years
swing shadows from/longer than home.
Can you hear/that word peal? I’m going
carrying the windows/from inside
all the vowels
The question plaintively expresses desire for sound to be tangible. The speaker wants to touch sound itself, and an attempt is made through the remarkable last line “I’m going there now”—as if sound is a place. These vowels and their sounds are now the opening to that place, to the bell’s peal.
The drive toward an interior space is contrasted by other poems that move almost cinematically through an exterior pastoral world. Images of trees, leaves, sunlight, insects, and the presence of other animals exist in these poems to clarify time into a tangible present. Yet the poems are both entranced by and skeptical of the natural world. The recurring seasons and their seeming beauty testify simultaneously of continuity and inevitable death. The poem “Red Feather” elucidates the former idea: “The owl / blinks its glass eyes / in a tree. Sometimes I think the red feather’s / the word is.” Likewise, in “Moment” the juxtaposition of singular images gives a nod to the pastoral hope of cheating time through recurring common events: “Years. It was cold. You wore / red mittens…/ Summer. The late light / upon us. Blue coppers, just hatched….” Yet it ends with a sense of oblivion: “... then you are sent to a country of nameless people / where there is no time.”
There are two poems in which a brutal death coincides with images of the natural world that convey continuity. “Pastoral” defies the connotation of that word by referring to the rape and murder of a young girl whose body is found beneath an elm, “A balloon, red, was tied, bobbing from a limb / above her.” The childish image of the balloon in the tree and the reference to growing grass create a haunting contrast to the girl’s life cut short. In a poem about Matthew Shepherd, “Shoes,” Irwin places the image of people leaving “their offices and homes in that quaint / mountain town” next to the image of Shepherd: “He was tied, naked to a fence, then beaten.” Here it is the continuity of the sky that creates a brief, if inadequate, refuge.
In poems such as “In Winter,” Irwin plays more gently with notion that time and death stalk the pastoral. The former poem describes the lives of two widows. One husband is memorialized through the simple gesture of tracing a map, the other as his widow hangs bedsheets in which he died out to dry. The speaker acts as conduit between these women and their dead husbands. When he helps the one widow hang the sheets, their hands accidentally touch and for that moment, he breaks the loss that time awards through death.
Large White House Speaking is divided into four sections and while there are poems focused on memories, they never settle into nostalgia. Instead, there is a restlessness that indicates it is not enough to restore the memory and the people within it. Instead, these poems explore how language unlocks memory to fulfill a desire for the sensuality of those lost moments. It is that desire that compels so many of the poems and creates the deft metamorphoses the reader encounters in seeking lost sensations. Often, after several transformed images, the only result is untranslatable sound. This happens in “The Mirror in my Parents’ Room” in which the mirror has trapped within its silver, the Milky Way’s “phosphorescent, streaming light” which hums “infant sounds.” “Ars Poetica” conveys an unsatisfied hunger for the sensations of words,
So many words I put
together, pushing them along their way, packing them
with light, loss, smells, tastes
silence, seasons, and the lost
seasons of an hour
The speaker responds to this hunger with a desire to “unwrap the cellophane from what we mean.”
The complexity of these poems is a pleasure as is the thematic insistence that pushes toward an elemental space. To focus on sound as being the doorway to that space creates unusual relationships between the words and their context. The sense is that if Irwin could shake these words from their context he would detect the heart that beats inside the letters. When he comes close to doing this, there is almost a euphoria at the discovery, as in the final lines of “Survey”:
And there are those, who, almost
after a lifetime, only listen.What
ushers us through the years? Yellow leaves
swirl past a stop sign. It is
a ringing you/can feel.