A REVIEW OF MARI-LOU ROWLEY'S
BY ALEX CAREY
The Rusty Toque | Reviews | Poetry | Issue 6 | May 30, 2014
Mari-Lou Rowley’s ninth collection of poetry, Unus Mundus (Anvil Press, 2013), is diverse in form and in content, and employs allusions as ostensibly dissonant as Cicero and Tupac Shakur. Like bits of astral debris, Rowley smashes together pop culture and ancient intellectual figures. The ambitious collection opens with a depiction of the pre-origins of the universe, and, through a construction and a subsequent deconstruction of poetic form, the earth, as we know it, slowly unravels, taking the reader on a journey through the follies and the small triumphs of its inhabitants.
Over six sections, Rowley’s decolonizes space by beginning “before time was the centre of things” (8). She decides that “infinity/ [is] a concept to keep humans in place” (17). Her poems refute existential stasis, and she refuses to govern her subjects with traditional distinctions.
In order to blow traditional organization apart, Rowley must first construct a poet’s slant on the universe. This poet knows her poetic structure, too, as the following section “CosmoSonnets” indicates. The collections’ strongest moments challenge equally the modern dichotomy between art and science, as well traditional academic tools. The footnotes for “Soliton Survivors”, the final poem of “CosmoSonnets,” offer both scientific definitions for quantum theory as well as aphorisms of human behaviour. After asserting that “the Raman effect is the inelastic scattering of a photon” she muses that this is “how the heart heals after it has broken” (34). This is poetry not chiefly satisfied with rhythmic mediations on the scientific method in practice, but rather an example of a poet managing a balancing act between intellectual and emotional experience. The speakers in these poems attempt to possess the all-seeing eye depicted on the book’s cover. Rowley’s eco-critical perspective holds in equal measure what we are told to know and what we feel we know, seemingly divergent concepts which she presents soundly. Her speakers understand both the legacy of the historical figures represented in her work, and the intrinsic continuity of their ideas in intellectual conversation.
As we reach the collection’s middle section, Rowley’s pace slows. Despite this rhythmic stasis, “Strange Terrains” and “Animalus”, lose none of Rowley’s acerbic wit or pathos. An astronaut speaker ironically maintains, “in space there is just so much room to move around in” (41), while we begin to understand the hubristic trappings of that colonial mentality. There really is not that much space to move around in, when, due to Rowley’s juxtapositions, the reader is forced to acknowledge that the institutional-bred disparity between art and science has contributed to the destruction of the natural world.
Rowley unfurls the collection’s frightening theme, spruce trees with “muscled roots/clutch the bank/ancient/arthritic”. If the astronaut is foolhardy to overestimate the size of outer space, or rather to underestimate the human propensity to fill it, then we are equally foolhardy to believe we have “lot of time/lots of time” (53). The repetition of ‘lots of time’ strengthens the parallel between the finite nature of the natural and human realms. The spruce trees grow old and wither; what chance do you have?
It is here where Rowley touches on more contemporary fair. The closest Rowley comes to overtly topical commentary in “Cicero in the Back Seat” is when Cicero bears witness to a lawyer’s son threatening to prorogue parliament (62) and politicians bray like donkeys. These strong, coherent images balance the oblique language in other poems and riff on contemporary Canadian politics. She echoes Canlit heavyweight Alden Nowlan’s “The Bull Moose” in her “Ursus Canadianis”, where in a modern context the speaker sees “the tick-ravaged moose that jumped the fence/into the gated community” (71), a nod to Canadian class stratification that offers these poems some ground on which to stand.
Rowley tips a cap to experimentation with “Garden Variety Porn”, sub-titled “a belated flarf poem.” She inverts its subject and its object in the closing lines— “too much metal in the light/too much light in the metal” (57)—which provide the collection’s self-aware and often problematic marriage between scientific and emotional intelligence.
These middle sections lack the structural innovation of their bookending counterparts. There is no obvious poetic form, or an obvious lack of form. The strength in the middle section is in the poems’ powerful images. There are moments of repose, of collisions barely avoided. In “Shuttle Scuttle”, “little brown lizards breathe a sigh/of relief” (42) as a shuttle launch is delayed; a clear, quiet moment before the “Feral Verses”, where Rowley unravels the conventions she established.
This elliptical final section reads a little like Phil Hall’s An Oak Hunch (Brick Books, 2005) where, in lieu of a traditional title, the first line—in Rowley’s case the first letter—of the poem is in bold. These poems invoke the ferocity of captive animals set free and are reminiscent of Oak Hunch in that respect, as well. This section contains all of the dynamic energy which governs Rowley’s natural world. The poet’s lean minimalism in this section goes beyond Hall’s ostensibly nonsensical near-narrative. Readers are left with little but “this loose language/Spill/accident or negligence/noun of verb” (88). In Unus Mundus’ preceding sections, Rowley makes use of traditional grammar when it’s appropriate but is equally comfortable abiding her own rules. By the time we reach “Feral Verses,” grammar has been almost entirely abandoned. The self-assured astronaut is nowhere to be found, as a speaker now admits “who can say what the wind sounds like/ under water” (92). The reason for the deconstructed verse, as if Rowley had not provided enough at this point, is further noted as she invokes Leonard Cohen’s famous “Flowers for Hitler.” The audience is desperate for “something to bite down on” (90) but are hard pressed to find anything here. These verses are read best aloud, to highlight the undulating cadence of these poems.
This desolation is not without its poignancy. Out of a broken window, Rowley treats us to “a dream of beauty” where we see “the jaw of a deer’s skull/locked open” (91). As metaphysical and elusive as some of these poems can be, Rowley’s deft, visceral engagement with the physical world belies any personal preference of form or a leniency towards rudimentary poetic classification. The scattering of bits of verse in the final section, preceded by the reorganization of human knowledge in the previous sections, performs as a big bang of poetics, or perhaps the heat death of colonial verse. Rowley sets her verse free, but only after restructuring epistemology—how Ptolemy and Al Capone share the same space and time, since, as one of the epigraphs borrowed from Plato and Dennis Richard Danielson’s The Book of the Cosmos, “as they were begotten together, they might be undone together” (13). The collection’s final image is of magpies who “cluck their glee” (94). Like humans, magpies are one of the only animals able to recognize themselves in front of a mirror. The magpie is pleased, though maybe it shouldn’t be, as “the moths want out” (94). It wouldn’t be surprising then, if Rowley is the one to set them free.
ALEX CAREY is an ex-Aquafit Instructor who was born in Guelph, Ontario. His writing appears in Feathertale and Occasus.