September 2007

Shaindel Beers


Magdalena by Maureen Gibbon

Maureen Gibbon begins her collection of prose poems, Magdalena, with an epigraph from Nancy Mairs: “The body itself is a dwelling place, as the Anglo-Saxons knew in naming it banhaus (bonehouse) and lichama (bodyhome)...” Gibbon could not have chosen a more appropriate opening for this collection which is, at times, painfully visceral. In “Touching My Scars,” Gibbon writes, “Once Richaux told me how it was hard having sex with me. He said, ‘When I touch you there, I can feel scars.’” She continues, “He just wanted to shame me. He was the one who told me how he thought of my rape each time we had sex.” Although in college literature classes, it is de rigueur not to assume that the author is the speaker of the poem, in this case, Gibbon clearly is, as she has written of her rape in The New York Times as well, in the “Lives” column (“My Rapist” October 29, 2006), in which she recounts her reaction when she recognized her rapist’s picture in the Engagements section of her hometown newspaper. Because readers know that this poem is autobiographical, it makes for difficult reading when Gibbon describes, “The one who shoved a foot between my legs” and “the blood that finally slowed to a crawl.”  

This intense intimacy of Gibbon’s collection is at once a strength and a weakness. While “the personal is the political” has been a feminist mantra since the 1970s, at times Gibbon’s collection seems uncomfortably personal. In “Guava Jelly” Gibbon writes of a former lover, “There was no place he wouldn’t suck or slip a wet finger. After I met him, I wondered at how stupid I’d been all the years before, staying with men who wouldn’t lick up into my vagina, the way I liked.” What saves Gibbon’s collection from being overly exhibitionistic is the delicate balance she creates between her sensualism (in the philosophical sense, not to be confused with sensuality) and the beauty of her language. The opening poem, “Un Bruit Qui Court,” is an extended metaphor comparing women to moored boats. “Sometimes a plank of wood splits in one of the boats because of the heat. The sound is sharp, like a handclap... The men can do that with their heat, make a woman cry out,” but then, the emotional turn of the poem takes place, from erotic (albeit female submissive eroticism) to defiant: “She may also split silently so that you would never know.” This ending is especially evocative given that much of Gibbon’s power is exhibited through her “confessional” mode of poetry; this poem also shows that silence is power, thus making readers wonder what Gibbon isn’t telling us about herself, perhaps a confessional poet’s greatest trick -- to tell everything, except...

Jim Harrison’s back cover blurb says of Gibbon’s work, “Comparisons are impossible because this book doesn’t remind me of anything I’ve read in years.” I beg to differ. Maureen Gibbon’s work seems remarkably similar to what Anne Sexton would be writing if she were in her prime today. Gibbon writes as if she is “Her Kind” incarnate and as if she believes as Sexton did that poetry “should almost hurt.” What Gibbon’s work accomplishes that Sexton’s, unfortunately, did not is healing. The poems which most exhibit healing are those which hinge on longing, perhaps because longing involves looking back, and the old adage “time heals all wounds” often proves to be true. In “The Way I Say Things,” Gibbon writes, “I get younger. The years keep falling away and I get close to the girl I was at seventeen. I knew things then.” The contrast occurs in the second paragraph, “Those years in the city I lost myself. I loved what was different from me... I’m coming home now. Back to who I was and always will be, the way I say things good enough.” Another poem which describes the same contrast is “Work,” which begins, “It happened early on, my shaping. The first job picking pears that I hated...” and ends, “All those years, and I still feel like that girl who worked hard, who worked hard all the time.” Perhaps these poems seem the most concrete because as Gibbon wrote in her Times piece, “[T]hat was another gift my rapist bestowed -- agelessness. Because I think so frequently of that night in April 1980, my teenaged self is still strong inside me. Because of my rapist, I’m forever young.“ While these poems which focus on her teenage years seem the most grounded, there is an acceptance of her current life which gives readers solace; Gibbon ends “Bells for an Anonymous Child,” with the line, “In my own body it is winter and beginning to snow,” a kinder, gentler version of Anne Sexton’s “Menstruation at Forty,” which speaks of, “...the November of the body / as well as of the calendar. /  In two days it will be my birthday / and as always the earth is done with its harvest.” 

Gibbon’s first full-length collection is a success, although a wider scope of material would serve a follow-up collection well.  Gibbon rarely steps outside of herself in Magdalena, and though she is a master of the confessional mode, she shows in the one poem which is strictly non-confessional, “Peony,” about Irene Sparrow, a “farm girl,” that she is as adept a weaver of others’ stories as she is of her own. Gibbon should never abandon her confessional roots, but adding greater variety to her second volume will keep her from being easy fodder for critics who consider confessional poetry too self-absorbed and uninteresting.

Magdalena by Maureen Gibbon
White Pine Press
ISBN: 1893996832
80 pages