Eye to Eye by Maria Terrone
The eye is an organ of presence and memory, artist and collector of art, body and body part, defined by perception, always seeking resolution in reflections of itself and its vessel. Maria Terrone's third full-length collection, Eye to Eye, begins with the painted eye on its cover, an "eye miniature" or "lover's eye," one of only a thousand or so that survive from a period lasting from the 1780s to the 1830s. The lover's eye craze began in 1785, when the Prince of Wales, later King George IV, of England, commissioned a locket adorned with a painting of his own ocular orb. He sent it to a woman he was forbidden to marry, who, to avoid the situation, had fled across the English Channel. Soon, presumably under the locket's sway, she returned and became his wife. The practice of commissioning and gifting similar lockets and other keepsakes became fashionable, as the enamored could now, wherever they were and with impunity, enjoy the intimate gazes of their distant lovers.
Eye to Eye greets us with one such "lover's eye," which appears also on Salon.com, illustrating a 2012 article, "The Secret History of 'Lovers' Eyes.'" This image and its presence on the Internet speak to the conundrums of perception and to Eye to Eye's central concerns: the dialectical tensions between intimacy and distance, immediacy and memory, consciousness and freedom, the human body and the means of its transcendence. Across the book's four sections, other themes emerge in service of this dialectic: nature's promise to free us from the burdens of perception, art's imperative to create alternative realities, and social media's potential to bridge distances.
The title poem is the first of many here that aim "to hold the private gaze / beyond the fleeting moment." The speakers of the first section, "Visitations," read what's lost to the present into present emblems of the past. In "To Begin Again," the speaker's fancy transports us to another scene, locating the liminal space of contemplation in an actual space. "Open the New Year to 365 town squares," she implores, "and close your eyes / to picture the daily passegiata. / how surreal it would be to strut across / the cobblestones alone." In such spaces Terrone considers time and its passage.
Set on a lake, "Swan's Wake" leads Yeats to Proust:
The swans have left
Their single-file parade has rounded
the lake's corner,
out of view. They avoided
my gaze as if they bore
beauty's burden, the guilt
of brute blood
and indifferent beak
that let Leda fall.
Such throaty talk among themselves,
Here Yeats's unwearied swans are absent creatures of the word, in whose wake remain "a thousand yellow eyes, unblinking." The speaker is fully conscious that she dwells in the season after passion and conquest, a time of observation and consciousness, manifest in images and discreet ideas set off here through deft enjambment.
But this moment comes early in the collection, and gives way to poems in which birds of other feathers promise speakers freedom from consciousness. In the second section, "The Body's Way," the speaker of "Words to Unpin Yourself From the Wall" seeks escape from her Prufrockian self in "the wild commotion of small birds hidden," wishing "To be inside one feathered throat pulsing and the vortex / of autumn leaves pulling the last light to itself." This will to avian life elevates Dostoevsky's desire for "insect life," that is, the life given to action, free from the consciousness of being and of right and wrong, of time and memory, and of mortality. The sharply associative "Country of No Gridlock" distills this desire.
Duet of birds hidden
beyond the white, fern-imprinted sky.
I am grasping
even in this vastness.
Even as I try to leave
my mind's clogged byways behind.
I am grasping
To learn how to unclench:
this is what I must do.
To be a small green thing,
Like many other birds in this collection, these are hidden -- in trees, in dreams, in vastness -- elusive, but remain an aspiration. This aspiration, this "Envying the Birds" (the title of the most direct of the bird poems) is the hunger for sensuality that submerges the perception of sensuality. It is a hunger that can't be satisfied, and one that moves Terrone to explore other means of transcending the limitations of human mind and body: art and social media.
The book's third section, "In Disguise," takes art and artifice as its subject, while displaying the poet's mastery. In this sequence Terrone's concern with art and her technical acumen recall Dana Gioia and John Hollander; her unflinching observation of human frailty and the wages of transcending it bring to mind Tracy K. Smith and the recently departed Claudia Emerson. "Becoming Silver," a trio of well-wrought sestets, gives us human beings making themselves into works of art. These living statues "remain unmoved, / Pygmalions who've tried / to make their own flesh stone / eternal as the carved guardians of tombs." This project of transcending the mortal coil, trying to create a "place apart" from the rest of humanity, still ends in the company of death. In "The Gargoyles Rebel," works of art decide to leave their "lofty cathedral perches," to trade their existence as "a conduit for medieval ideas" for something akin to fleeting but precious human life, "pressured to bursting, cracking, / teetering on the edge." But largely unresolved goes the tension between humanity's life force and art's thrusts toward immortality.
Any resolution of these powers derives from Terrone's writing, especially her gift for sound, in both spare and expansive lines. The opening lines of "Becoming Silver," only eight to ten syllables each, pop with rackety consonance that echo the poem's subject: "Faces forged to a new coin's hard dazzle, / they stand rigid on hidden stilts / above the piazza, unblinking." Terrone's lengthier lines are just as sonorous, like these from "Models & Marie Anoinette: Two Escapes":
I take in a stripped-bare space, commercial buzz, the motion
of flouncing baby dolls, lace bra the black center
of a blinding white circle, and Cheekie, I assume,
behind the tripod. The image flickers across my retina
So we are back to the eye, catching images married to music these images might make.
Many of the poems in "Crossing the Gulf," the book's closing section, deal with spatial, cultural, political and personal distances. This focus raises the stakes of transcending bodily confinement. In the ingeniously conceived poem "Knives," Palestinians and Jews "whirling in chaotic space" overcome traditional hostilities by using their knives only to cook. In "Across the Gulf," the speaker uses her eyebrows to try and bring her invalid father back to the world. In "Lace" and "The Tattered Handkerchief," Terrone finds in generations-old Mediterranean linen and lace "a map / to trace your way home," a path to the lives of her Italian forbears.
But the most poignant attempt to reach a person who cannot be touched comes in "A Facebook Page in Iran." Online, the speaker encounters someone named "Mohsen, trapped / there and he knows it" (in lines that avoid the technical cliché of internal rhyme by employing near rhyme). She cannot read the majority of his Farsi posts, but when in English he mourns the death of the singer Whitney Houston, she "wanted to say: oh yahoo dot com friend, / oh Rumi-quoting poet, oh beardless infidel, / post and post again to burn the tyrant's Rulebook." The poignancy here lies in the want, in the consciousness of constraint, and in the artificial eye, which, like Prince George's, peers across the gulfs of time and space.
Eye to Eye by Maria Terrone