When I was in high school, one of my classmates and I found ourselves mildly obsessed with the poetry of Sara Teasdale. We found a copy of her collected works in the school library and took turns checking it out, over and over again, until it never spent any time in the stacks anymore. We loved that book.
Even if I wouldn’t necessarily gravitate toward her verse now, Teasdale sparked something important in me: she helped me get past my hatred of poetry.
In my high school English classes, we mostly read poems from that no-woman’s-time between Emily Dickinson and the New York School. “Dover Beach,” “Richard Cory,” “A Man Who Had Fallen Among Thieves,” “Dulce et Decorum Est,” “In Flanders Fields.” The only part of The Odyssey we covered was a xeroxed page of columns of text from the Lotos Eaters episode. We read one Shakespeare play a year (always a tragedy), except in eleventh grade, which was all American Lit. Incomprehensibly, no one ever made us write a single poem in order to better understand what a poem was or could be or do.
I was so bored by poetry.
Now, let’s be clear: I attended a good college preparatory school for young women, and my teachers were talented educators. So what were these largely female teachers (there was just one man in the department back then) doing teaching nothing but this dry stuff to teenage girls? It didn’t occur to me that there were published poets living and walking among us in the world. I’d heard of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, but they might as well have been from Planet Suicide in the Not From Here Or Now Nebula. The Bell Jar was a book only the edgiest among us counted among her possessions, and I was not overtly edgy. I liked Emily Dickinson (she was weird with language) and Elizabeth Barrett Browning (I’d read and liked “How Do I Love Thee?” in grade school when it showed up on a bookmark in the library) and Shakespeare’s sonnets, but otherwise my positive experience with poetry was limited to the tender rhymes my boyfriend wrote to me every few months.
Until Sara Teasdale.
I’d been introduced to her writing, oddly, in the midst of a short story by Ray Bradbury. My interest in her work continued into my first few semesters of college, when I began writing sonnets of my own which were heavily informed by Teasdale’s diction, pacing, and subject matter. My Creative Writing professors were kind enough to encourage me while introducing me to contemporary poets and their current idiom. I began to love reading the work of poets who were not only still alive but still publishing, and my own writing style evolved into something even people who weren’t required by employment to read my poetry might want to explore.
Even though I might find Teasdale’s work sentimental now, and thus incompatible with my relative stoicism, I will always appreciate her work for bringing me into the fold.
I had the opportunity to read and review Naked in the Sea, a collection of poems by Marie Marshall. This wonderful volume is divided thematically into five sections, and one of those sections, entitled “THE BIG EASY: Eight poems inspired by N’awlins,” contains sonnets that have the bygone-era charm and tenderness that made Teasdale’s poetry so inspiring, but also contemporary subject matter relatable to a current audience. And who can resist the setting? The sounds and tastes and smells of New Orleans float off the page and fill the reader’s subconscious until these poems feel three-dimensional.
But that’s just one section of a book which begins with the compelling line “The moon sometimes shines to the bone.”
“PEARL: Eight poems on hidden preciousness” boasts gorgeous, yet highly accessible, imagery.
. On nights like these
. when the wind is a kiss at the nape
. and I am barefoot on the naked grass
. that is a time to find a lost stone
. hard and half-buried beneath my heel…
There’s a certain reverence of sensuality here, each vignette a lush morsel of verse which, like a chocolate truffle, leaves the reader wanting yet one more before putting the book down.
One of the nice things about reading a book of poetry is that it’s frequently easy to read just one or two poems at a time. There’s no hurry to get to the next chapter; poetry can be savored. The pacing of Naked in the Sea, at times reminiscent of the Beats yet utterly unpretentious, makes it hard not to turn the page and read another, and another and another.
. They say that a woman
. no matter how much clothing she wears
. is naked the moment she puts on pearls
. your glance and your half-smile
. tell me they are wise…
Another section highlights the theme of nakedness, the self laid metaphorically bare through love, grief, commiseration, desire. It plays with language in the way Seamus Heaney’s masterful translation of Beowulf does. A line in his epic contains “hasped and hooped and hirpling.” Marshall uses this same kind of inner whimsy to bolster more serious or passionate subject matter.
. The sea tells truth, and it was glad
. to feel your nakedness against it;
. your skin, where I touched it
. with my lips, had the sea-salt taste,
. and your breasts were true with it,
. with the truth of it, yes with that all-truth,
. yes with that rolling true-cross of sea-nails,
. the spear of salt in the wind.
In some poems, she makes narrative poetry out of deft metaphors, keeping a light enough touch that the story doesn’t cloud or overbear the lyric. She also plays with style, employing with particular skill the dramatic monologue form in some of the “leaf” and “hunger” poems.
Marshall has a particular facility with brevity. Naked in the Sea contains many short poems like tidbits that can be enjoyed when you have a moment, and then the back of your mind can chew on what you’ve read, meditate on it in the quiet moments of the day or in the crevices of night.
At times the vignettes in this collection feel like discovered fragments of ancient poems. They evoke a feeling, a character, a conflict. They give us a moment of sublime imagery and scene, and then they leave us, teasingly.
It was difficult, as I read and made notes on this book, not to favorably compare Marshall’s work with that of other poets I love. (Eventually I gave up trying and just decided to leave some of them out of this review.) The thing is, Naked in the Sea reminds me of why I accepted poetry into my life in the first place.
Sometimes in my English classes, I’ll leave fragments of poems or maybe haiku written up on the board for people to see when they wander in. Sometimes I even choose slightly scandalous lines — nothing racy, of course, but something to catch the average high school student’s attention. Here, I’m saying, see this? It’s poetry. It’s not dry or boring. It’s not all about World War I. It’s about real life, honest emotion, actual things that might matter to you in this moment. It’s not “Casey at the Bat.” It’s Sappho or Issa or Bashō, Pablo Neruda or “petals on a wet, black bough,” someone’s lover “walking in beauty” or “death kindly [stopping] for me.”
Most of the time no one says anything about these fragments I’ve scribbled up on the board. But every once in a while, a kid will be packing up his books, glance up, pause. I’ll see him reading, thinking about it. He has noticed. The next day in class, he pays closer attention, speaks up a bit more in discussion. Maybe I’m wishfully imagining it, but on these days, I believe the efforts I make are worth it.
People who don’t like to read poetry are sometimes the first ones I hear say that poetry is a dying art form. It’s not.
Books like Marie Marshall’s Naked in the Sea show me that people out there right now are playing with language and theme and form and keeping poetry very much alive.
N.b.: Poetry quotations in most of this review have been taken from Marie Marshall’s Naked in the Sea (2010). Quoted fragments in the final section were respectfully borrowed from Ezra Pound, Lord Byron, and Emily Dickinson, in that order.
Marie Marshall’s second collection of poetry I am not a fish and her novel Lupa are also available; you can find links to them on her website (http://mairibheag.com). She can also be found on Twitter: @MairibheagM. Finally, check out one of her blogs where she posts daily snatches of poetry, a little treat each time: http://kvennarad.wordpress.com/