Words like manhole covers,
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This review is from: To the Boneyard (Hardcover)
There are words
like manhole covers
("The things we come down to")
because they hide the shafts of memory, though with all their danger they can also be the tunnels that lead to wonderland. To the Boneyard is a collection fascinated both by language and by journeys, as you would expect from an émigrée poet. I have a special fondness for displaced poets, because they always seem, in their work, on the way to or from somewhere; they never quite finish either leaving or arriving and it gives their work an edge, especially in the way they see things. Many of these poems are set on the move: on trains, planes, roads. "Greyhound" pays a conscious homage, in the line "Home is ninety-three hours away", to "24 Hours from Tulsa", but where the man in the song fails to arrive home because he is distracted by a woman, the narrator of Marsh's poem has no real reason for staying at the truckstop where she happens to be, except a
curiosity to know
what this place looks like
in the spring, how blue-cragged
those mountains will be.
It is more, in fact, that she has no especial reason to go "home", wherever that is, and other narrators in the collection show the same shallow-rooting quality of the traveller:
along the side of things, like salt in cracks
Yet memory is hugely important to the displaced, the prism of the past through which they see the present, so that, quite often, time seems in these poems to telescope to a single point. In "Billboards", the adult narrator remembers childhood journeys with her father that were full of words - on maps, on roadside hoardings that
led to cities - words first, then boulevards
The child sang road-names, as her father sang nursery rhymes - "to the boneyard/ you must go ". Now, though, he is losing language.
Now you say That's a good word. Then
repeat it. As if you've never heard it. Now
we drive down roads I don't recognise.
Language as a map, the key that makes sense of the world and our journeys in it, reappears in other poems, like "Beck and call", the world of which is effectively shaped by a word-game, a repeated syllable with a changing vowel, and "Definite article", where a life is pared down to nouns.
Indeed it sometimes seems, in a transient world, that recording experience in words is the only way we can keep it. In "Kefalonia", a couple on an adulterous two-week break find that memory alone will not serve:
She swam every Ionian cove they could find,
back and forth its entire width,
and again the next day, to make it more real.
Each bay disappeared
as soon as they mounted the hill to the road.
On the return flight, the man is quiet, "already absent", with the economy and understatement that create such a sense of inevitability in this poem and the collection as a whole. In "Pensacola Beach Bridge", one of the collection's last poems, a structure recalled from childhood is destroyed by a storm and the narrator reflects "Perhaps there's no bridge to anywhere we've been". But there is, we know by now; it is the map of language that enables her, and us, to fix memory and, in a limited sense, to defeat the passing of time.