Lararium by Ray Ball. Variant Literature, 2020. 38 pages. $10.
Being Many Seeds by Marilyn McCabe. Grayson Books, 2020. 20 pages. $12.
All archaeology is a search for story: a quest for who, when, how, and why. We dig to discover–and to reconsider and re-adjudicate–the past. In remaking history through our excavations, we end up also rediscovering, reconsidering, and re-adjudicating ourselves.
Ray Ball is a poet, historian, and naturalist who understands the buried strata of family, dominance, anger, and pain. Her chapbook Lararium begins with a living excavation: fire ants devour the chameleons the speaker’s father, a herpetologist, has stored in cages. The father rages as though it was “his flesh that bore / their stinging bites, his bones / exposed and gleaming,” as his daughter looks on, yearning:
to be able to do anything
that would earn me
a reaction of that intensity.
This poem sets the stage for the collection. Nature, province of snapping snakes and devouring ants, is fierce. The speaker’s father, an academic and herpetologist, tries in vain to control it. He focuses myopically on his cold-blooded collection, adding to it, constructing cages for it, stopping the car and dashing off to gather a new specimen when he spots one in the road, raging when any of his caged creatures suffers an unexpected mortality or wanders free. His family, largely ignored, has no role but that of spurned onlookers, mute lab assistants ready to proffer a mouse or mealworms as directed.
In ancient Rome, a lararium was a room or niche outfitted with statues of family deities. For the speaker’s father, the lararium is his collection of reptiles–this is the family he dotes on and passionately defends. For Ball herself, these poems serve as a kind of lararium, as she pays homage to and seeks answers from memories of her family, especially her father.
After the father’s death, Ball’s speaker reminisces with her mother about the time one of her father’s three spurred tortoises escaped from its pen. Every stage of the story of that escape entails anger. The poem’s speaker remembers her father’s “anger and worry” upon discovering the animal’s disappearance, and his suspicion that a neighbor had stolen or released the tortoise “out of malice.” When he later drives to retrieve the tortoise, the man who finds it is “pissed off that we didn’t offer a big reward.” Neither the speaker nor her mother can remember which tortoise was lost. What lingers in this recollection–this digging up of the past–is nastiness and neglect.
In the poem, “In Pilates Class,” a move called The Elephant reminds Ball’s speaker of the ways that elephants will dig up their dead:
If only mourning could be
clear and simple,
brash like the trumpeting
of a pachyderm
If only what I buried
stayed under the earth . . .
Instead, what she has tried to bury resurfaces, nagging like curiosity. Ball’s poems recognize that the harm people do reaches beyond families to ecosystems. In “Dendronctonus rufipennis,” she writes:
At a party, a friend of a friend asks
do you have children?
And you respond
There are thirty times
more dead spruce
than five years ago.
To find a place for herself in that world of harm, the poet turns to science for explanations and, here, for a code of conduct as well. That code informs the collection’s final poem, even if that poem begins by denying its own scientific methodology,
Love is a scale,
but I still erase
my father. Turn
his data into
poems without heed
Memory that can’t escape abstraction: she works not with her father but with his data, the record of cruelty and absence in her life. But love is obdurate, willing to ignore clear evidence–warnings–of potential harm, whether from caged snakes or cornered memories, because something, even an impulse as vague as a guess, compels the poet to press on, to continue her experiments investigations, to continue hoping:
Ignoring the hiss
is a scale.
I wanted to tip
I still do.
The poet is still poring over the evidence of her life, still working–in the language and methods of science–to assay love, and still searching for a way to tip the pan, to restore balance to the scales of both science and justice.
In Being Many Seeds, Marilyn McCabe creates a single form, which she uses in a series of thirteen poems to explore evolution, the possibility of cosmic meaning, and the philosophy of the 20th century Jesuit priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Each poem consists of four sections that fill a page. First, there’s a stanza or group of stanzas in which people mix with nature. Next, there’s an erasure of that stanza with most of the words removed. Next, another erasure, paring down the first erasure down to a skeletal utterance. And at the bottom of the page, in italics, a paragraph about Teilhard de Chardin. The first of which reads:
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Jesuit priest and philosopher, believed in God and? but? studied the bones of prehistoric humankind like Peking Man, reading the bones of the old stonemaker, the world in his hands. War was coming. What could he make of this?
What is our place in a vast, evolving cosmos? Teilhard asks this question, and we ask it, too. The framing in this book is Heraclitan: “Teilhard believed that a system cannot be understood outside of time: all things are in progress; nothing is static.” The world is becoming; we are becoming. But what’s behind this evolution? Is it for the best or is it simply by chance? Evolution suggests that we can learn from mistakes. But can we? And is God involved with this evolution or not?
These are the questions McCabe’s prose paragraphs about Teilhard de Chardin wrestle with. Above them, she sets out stanzas, and erasures of those stanzas, where people and an evolving cosmos mix. Like so:
Crosshatched hemlocks and rattlesnake
fern block the path.
I have entered the sunlit pasture.
In this clearing, shadows
stream toward clouds
clasp at a cliff fissure.
stream toward clouds
clasp a cliff
McCabe is wary of succumbing to a mysticism that lacks scientific rigor. She asks big questions and wants hard-nosed, not starry-eyed, answers.
As stars are not
the mystic harbor of my wishes
nor mass but space and burning,
so are my questions.
The erasures that follow, though, dissolve the distance between phenomenon and scientist, between world and watcher, star and stargazer. Through her poems, nature questions itself: “stars / are / burning questions.” Through this questioning, McCabe realizes that her own identity is no more solid than that of the evolving world around her:
A structure myself, I am holey,
barely discernible, as a toothpick tower.
(Would I were a reed through which the wind passes.)
But I will tangle. I will think I’m something else.
I stomp around the world as a god.
Largely empty, I am disturbance.
These lines evoke the Buddhist idea of emptiness: all things are contingent, interdependent, and empty of inherent nature, even if people, deluded into believing otherwise, spend their days grasping at things and, in their more arrogant moments, stomping around as gods. But emptiness, in Buddhism and in these poems, does not mean empty of worth. Emptiness holds both holiness and “holeyness” as one.
On each page, McCabe’s erasures reveal something lively and holy lurking in the denser language of the stanzas above. Informed by her story of Teilhard de Chardin’s questioning progress and purpose, the erasures seem to move both forwards and backwards in time. They could be read as progress as evolution into a simpler form: nature streamlining swamp thing to barn swallow, writer burnishing essay to apothegm. Or they could be read as an excavation, a digging into something more elemental and ancient, like an archaeologist’s busy brush revealing, against a blank background, the glistening femur of Peking Man. Or as dissolution or collapse, a striping of meat down to bone, of filigreed cathedral to windowless ruin, revealing a hard, latent truth, an essential, underlying connectedness – like the fire ants in Ball’s poem reducing chameleons to “the delicate / bones of hope.”
Surveying an evolving cosmos with de Chardin, McCabe, with a scientist’s skepticism, considers a wide range of possibilities, not all of them promising. Thinking of “terrorist cells operating around the world in communication with each other,” she wonders if interconnectedness is making the world worse. And she wonders if humankind will turn out to be nonessential to the world’s progress destined to be edited out “like a tail, like an extra toe.” She won’t join Teilhard de Chardin in his affirmation that God is at the center of all this motion. Nonetheless, she will meet de Chardin in companionship. They meet page after page as fellow questioners and investigators. And they meet, finally, “as sinews in the cosmic body.”
Like Ball returning to her scales, McCabe considers questions from many sides and never finds a final, reductive answer. But the living and the asking, the digging and the weighing, the seeking and seeding, turn out to be reward enough.
She concludes with the irrefutable evidence of life itself: “Let us say we have briefly been.”