Maryrose Larkin’s The Book of Ocean. (i.e. press).
Maryrose Larkin’s The Book of Ocean is one of the most significant first books of poetry this year. Socially insightful and emotionally resonant, The Book of Ocean develops a sophisticated intellectual framework that shows Larkin to be a genuinely philosophical poet. Central to the book is a sense of the world and human experience in it as a kind of layering, almost a palimpsest like in the work of H.D., in which the peeling away of each layer reveals a further layer of significance. Sharply etched rhythms provide an edgy energy that makes the book’s intellectual ambitions an aesthetic pleasure as well.
From the beginning of the book’s opening poem, “Brief Gravity,” Larkin sets up the importantly large-scale implications of her world view:
I rhyme with the ground
and all at once it falls
apple I am apple
apple severed from tree
not the snake or a woman but tree itself is discovery
a force based on the world
something terrible had gone wrong, now I think
something happened, but just
earth occurs in resemblance
In the material world, physics
trap a pound of feathers in a pound of gold
a man falling out of an airplane
a woman falling out of a sky
The poem deals with an originary moment in human experience, one that clearly references The Book of Genesis while critiquing its mythology. The force of the falling apple is a natural force of change, not a symbol of gender and sin. From that originary natural force, a whole series of resemblances (a term which also implies differences) develops, including the way that the human desire for freedom will become trapped in the power of money and technology.
There are at least four main interweaved conceptual strands of The Book of Ocean, some highlighted in the first poem, others emerging later. There’s the geological, the literal fact of the earth and its geological strata as a condition of materiality, time and change. Closely connected to this is the historical; time and change understood in the context of human beings as a group. Then there’s the self, a process of reflection and creativity, connection and dissolution. Finally, there’s a mythological impulse, the straining to find an overall meaning to all these layers of existence.
This mythological impulse, again reminiscent of H.D., is reflected by the organization of the book into six sections: Natural History, Gardens, Hours, The Life List, Music, Ocean. But the mythologically coherent totality that the book’s organization might suggest frequently collapses within the poems. Larkin simultaneously builds and deconstructs her mythology, always challenging any overarching meaning-making drives. There’s tension, action and reaction, but no stable whole. If earth and history make the self possible, the self shapes comprehension regarding earth and history. But there are also ways in which self struggles against earth and history, while earth and history confront the self with its often painful limitations.
The opening of the poem “Baptism” suggests some of the particulars at stake in these concepts:
Beginnings are found countries
born just and raw
Imagine: fingers dark against
white strange gardens
earth gnaws earth new
her memories of arrival in this country
Here, the figure of the immigrant (or perhaps the slave) has become the self who records memories of change in countries and landscapes, while confronting and being shaped by the newness of “white strange gardens.” The poem goes on to suggest that the concept of the immigrant is essential to human experience. The movement from one landscape, nation, culture, and natural environment to another seems an unavoidable change in the history of the self. While calling up particular histories of immigration, “Baptism” shows that the concept of the immigrant is not relevant simply to some people’s histories, but can serve as a resonant metaphor for many selves and their travels.
One might be skeptical of such large scale myths and metaphors because of the way they sometimes ignore historical specifics. And it’s precisely the fact that it shares this skepticism that makes The Book of Ocean so convincing. Given all the interweaved concepts, none finally controls the other, and none allows for more than a partial understanding of any phenomena. The poems are filled with ellipses, with boundaries that can’t be crossed and statements that aren’t quite made, with silences and absences:
Fire fixed or wandering
illumed by earth this body
I cannot pass
(from “Night House”)
In fact many moments in The Book of Ocean teeter on the edge of intelligibility, as if at any moment coherence could be swept away for good. If the book has any shortcomings, it would be that this resistance to an overly controlling system of sense sometimes avoids even locally definite conclusions, so that the implications of certain poems are left hanging too loosely.
But the open-endedness that results from this resistance to totalizing coherence is finally one of the book’s main strengths. Most of the poem are ultimately about processes of interaction more than conclusions, as the opening of “Changeling” implies:
We cross the phenomena of light
Here is what we have twisted
There is the nature of
A name is not description but ornament, becoming an
To be wholly replaced as we travel
Look how quickly she becomes other, a changeling
In circumstances like these, understanding can never be either fixed or permanent, but becomes a fundamentally interactive process. Definitive conclusions are finally less important than the motion of understanding, which comes and goes, depending on the situation. Such an understanding of understanding is in a unique way quite definite.
What The Book of Ocean finally shows is that writing poems can be a way of engaging the interactive condition of the changeling. The book’s finely honed rhythms, alternately clipped and wave-like, never let either the repetitions of the ocean or the disconnection of the fragment become dominant modes. The result is a book which enacts processes of change on multiple levels and becomes itself a significant example of its own theories.