When They Say You Can’t Go Home Again, What They Mean Is You Were Never There, by Marty McConnell
University of Southern Indiana Press, 2018. 77 pp.
Reviewed by Susanna Lang
From the first poem in this collection, Marty McConnell poses the essential problem that concerns her:
Out here I can believe
this world isn’t going to end
or not yet.
“Out here” is a garden where she sits in a yellow chair, contemplating her spring kale and her hostas, her dog, the starlings’ conversation with themselves. Yet she knows that “riots and ocean” threaten to consume the world as we know it. These poems do not only focus on the ecological disasters that loom on our horizons, but also on the injustices that are as much a part of “this now” as the idyll of her backyard.
Nor does she point the finger at others for creating these dangers. A series of poems interspersed throughout the collection are all entitled “White Girl Interrogates—” her own memories, her dreams, her heart, and the crazy laws we’ve enacted in order to pretend we’re in control. In a poem lamenting the death of Tamir Rice, McConnell is clear that “It is a thing my people did” (“Radio Silence, WENZ, WJMO, Cleveland”). The poems become a ritual of penance, in which the first step is to admit culpability even if neither you, nor I, nor the poet was the one who “waited 1.5 seconds/to shoot a Black boy playing/with a toy gun.” We have nonetheless allowed it to happen, in part by denying that it was our doing.
Though the poems are full of such sorrows, this is not a despairing book. Set against the grief and the fear is the love this writer holds for the world. There is no division between the poems of witness and the very personal love poems: she loves this person in this place that is at risk. “Treatise on the Nature of Non-Abandonment” begins with the risk: “Anything can happen next. Tea, gunshots, the streetlights/coming on outside this room…” but in the same stanza the speaker already turns toward the beloved, “with your body so like my body but with its own//particulars, the breasts I have called perfect/and the waist I tug toward me all day….” It is love that gives her the strength to work toward a different ending: “Let’s not leave this world in ruins.”
So it makes sense that the last poems center “body” in one of the mind-maps that serve as section breaks throughout the book. As we allow our individual bodies to “become the horizon,” we can perhaps find a way to survive the apocalypse. If we are broken down to our molecules, then “We’re neighbors, you and I.” And if we accept that we are all neighbors, sitting in the yellow chairs of our gardens at the heart of this broken world, we can search together for the way out. In these wild, sprawling, gorgeous songs, Marty McConnell challenges us: “Don’t say that it’s too late to try.”
Susanna Lang’s newest collection of poems, Travel Notes from the River Styx, was released in summer 2017 from Terrapin Books. Her last collection was Tracing the Lines (Brick Road Poetry Press, 2013). A two-time Hambidge fellow, her poems have appeared in such publications as Little Star, Prairie Schooner, december, American Life in Poetry and Verse Daily. Her translations of poetry by Yves Bonnefoy include Words in Stone and The Origin of Language. Among her current projects is Self-Portraits, a chapbook collection of ekphrastic poems focused on women artists. She lives with her husband in Chicago. More information available at www.susannalang.com.