Mark Irwin, Large White House Speaking, New Issues 2013.
Affirming, reverential, and elegiac, the title poem of Mark Irwin’s sixth collection of poetry is strewn with the word yes. Such a hopeful chord, however, does not resonate without coexisting notes of longing and ambivalence. The first-person-plural speaker expresses the conflicting desire to leave and to stay. In long sweeping lines, the poem alludes to an exemplar domestic scene: man, woman, child, furniture, pet, windows, drawers, darkness and light. Who is the speaker of the poem? The house itself? Some unspecified inhabitants? In the final four lines of the poem, the speaker becomes an intimate singular “I,” who conjures the memory of holding an infant, a memory which embodies a foregone closeness to God.
Preoccupations with the passing of time, divine mystery, the redemptive act of writing, and familial ties permeates this book. “Creation,” a poem the reader encounters early in offers a luminous accretion of seed imagery—the gold sparks of a miner’s pickaxe, the semen of Christ, the seed an ape picks from a grape, the blowing fuzz of a dandelion—all the while hinting at a darker narrative of a loved one’s suicide. Imagery and colors serve as connecting tissue in a world forever threatening to crumble and disappear. In the lovely elegy “April,” a firefighter helmet found in an attic elicits a childhood memory of a long-dead relative, as well as the memory of a battered Corinthian helmet the speaker once saw in London. Indeed “April” mixes memory with desire, but so does the seemingly small paraphernalia of our lives. In “Paperclip,” the object of an isolated paperclip found on the sidewalk awakens the speaker’s desire to change, to be part of a family, and further, to be snagged and seized by something much larger than the temporal, nuclear family:
I admit that I love the body, but it’s that
other diamonded hook within our flesh
that pulls us toward a hook of many hooks
shining so brightly no one can see, only feel,
the pulling a kind of family beyond all belief.
In “Voyage,” Irwin, a close observer of the natural world, explores the power and destruction of progress. As the speaker watches a television show about the Iluissat Glacier, a friend appears at the door mourning her difficulties conceiving a child. Three years later, a son is born, presumably through in vitro fertilization, and the glacier, whose accelerated melting serves as climate change indicator, has retreated another five miles. The boy grows up to be a doctor and the icebergs “calved” from the glacier destroy numerous ships and their crew.
The short prose poem “Mike” examines the absurdity of our evolving lexicon in light of the twentieth century’s exponential capacity for annihilation. The title refers to the full-scale test of a multi-megaton thermonuclear weapon on the island of Elugelab on the Enwetok atoll. The congenial American male name given to a weapon of such massive destruction, Irwin insinuates, mirrors the desire to equate, or euphemize, such power with the triumphs of professional sports: “‘Out of the park,’ some said on November 1st, 1952.” Similar in form but striking a different tonal register, the prose poem “Lucy” takes as its subject the astonishing scientific discovery of the partial hominid skeleton found by Donald Johanson in Ethiopia in 1974. The three million year-old remains of this female body provide a dizzying glimpse at the mysterious connection to our ancestral past, and serve as a reminder of the short blip in time that defines any individual life.
Irwin is a mature poet in the best sense of the word. Large White House Speaking demonstrates prodigious range in subject, style and form, if it is even possible to consider each of these categories as separate entities. Irwin moves from the political/social realm to familial landscapes to surrealistic narratives such as “Empire” (a character so plagued by worry invents “a pill for everyone / old that allowed you to continue slowly to grow / until you forgot everything you once knew”) and “The Cake” (a mother makes a cake of unfathomable red that grows in size even as it is devoured by her family). Deft in use of both the long and short line, Irwin has a gift for bringing each poem into a seemingly organic form. “Sentence” begins:
I like feeling my way toward a subject, something about
the privacy and freedom of the paper, its white margins
summoning me beyond this life…
When I read these poems I feel summoned, too. Summoned to re-see the world in a way that is simultaneously sad and marvelously, unexpected and luminously poignant.