How Close Wonder is to Horror : Caroline Hagood’s “Making Maxine’s Baby”

“Making Maxine’s Baby” is Caroline Hagood’s second poetry collection, after “Lunatic Speaks” (of which I’ve written elsewhere, and consider one of the finest contemporary collections of poetry I’ve read.) First disclosure: I know the author. Second disclosure: I tend to look down on the work of personal acquaintances, (who needs competition?) so the fact that I generally find her poems to be pretty fantastic is an endorsement.

But there’s a third disclosure:

ABOVE: Baby Boom Room

I originally wrote a rather gushing review of this poem cycle about Maxine, a homeless NYC woman who’s happily unable to distinguish the magical from the squalid, but then I sat on it for a few weeks. I went and re-read the collection and I felt much more critical – even as I loved the individual poems even more the second time around.

I found that praising it is too easy, so let’s get it out of the way. Hagood’s trademark charms are there: the language sculpted into shining simplicity; the juxtaposition of a child’s bright-eyed awe with the intellectual’s cocked eyebrow; the LOL-provoking lines ; and the sensual awe in the presence of the commonplace – or rather the uncommon that gets taken for granted by the less poetic among us.

“Making Maxine’s Baby” even has a fantastic centerpiece in “Horror Theory,” a poem-cycle-within-a-poem-cycle where Maxine dissects her reality with a scary-movie scalpel. How could you not love its encyclopedic tangle of the Aurora killings, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” “Onibaba,” Jodorowsky’s “Santa Sangre,” David Cronenberg,  “I Spit On Your Grave” and “Dawn of the Dead”? When was the last poetry collection you read that alluded to Tom Savini as a symbol of healing through art? When was the last poem you read that alluded to Tom Savini at all?

ABOVE: “This makes so much sense to Maxine when she remembers / Sally’s hysterical laughter as she pulls away/ in a pick-up truck, leaving Leatherface/ to shake his now meaningless / chainsaw over his head.”

The problem, as I found it, is that “Making Maxine’s Baby” has story-telling ambitions that it only tentatively tries to fulfill. It almost wants to be a novelist’s portrait… without quite committing to the cohesiveness of fiction. Poetry comes foremost for the poet, unsurprisingly. I know that’s a misguided charge to level against a POETRY collection, but I fear the problem is expressed right when “Horror Theory” comes up. Up to that point, Maxine functions as character: she’s homeless, haunted by childhood abuse, schizophrenic, borne along by the uncertainty of subways, hallucinating among garbage bags, and avoiding the elements by sneaking into movie theaters for an education. Maxine, for all her lunacy, made sense. But with (and subsequently to) “Horror Theory” the consistency of the homeless-woman character evaporates to a puzzling degree.

Suddenly Maxine is a hobo that’s also quite capable of affording a grad-school education that allows her to keep up with Julia Kristeva’s feminist structuralism and casually reference Donald Barthelme. I began by believing a traumatic event had thrown Maxine off the grid during her adolescence – and then I stopped believing in Maxine altogether, at least as anything other than the author’s educated, decidedly non-homeless perspective flowing into the receptacle of her creation. You can dig through trash all day OR meditate on Walter Benjamin, but not both. OK, fine, maybe you CAN (and New York would certainly be the place where that would happen) but I need a STORY of HOW. And “Making Maxine’s Baby” teases with its illogical story elements.

And how many street people personally resent the boasts of accredited university twits, as Maxine does in “MFA In Vapor”?

“Screw you and your credentials.

I have an MFA in vapor and urban

reek, I have been featured in anthologies

of knock knock jokes and engine

sounds, have a degree in failing

spectacularly, won a Pushcart Prize

for blowing a man on one of the last

subway bathrooms…”

I love those lines as poetry (“anthologies of knock knock jokes and engine sounds” is particularly brilliant) and yet I don’t get where that resentment could come from in that particular character. Is there an epidemic of academics harassing the homeless, condescendingly brandishing copies of Granta outside soup kitchens?

Here’s a seemingly small moment that makes me wonder how much the author envisioned Maxine’s reality:

“If one more person asks if she’s named after Max

from “Where the Wild Things Are,” she’ll just have to kill them.”

Really? This lonely, schizophrenic vagabond gets asked THAT cute little question a lot? By who? I mean, as someone named after a children’s story, I would fully sympathize, but how many dumpster-crawling buddies would ask something so intrinsically cute? See, I believe a child called Max would get that question, and even then it would only be asked by charming peers with the kind of warm childhoods that allow for Maurice Sendak readings at bedtime. (Not as universal an experience as all that.)

But I guarantee the questions homeless women get asked, when people interact with them at all, are of a far more sordid nature. Maybe she might get asked about being named after MAD Max. Maybe.

ABOVE: “No, Max! Don’t tell me it will take that long until Caroline gets another collection out! That’s scary!”

“Making Maxine’s Baby” is made of fully-developed poems about a sketched-out character. After hearing so much about the horrors of Maxine’s street life, after being given access to the wonder of her elevated, delirious inner world, I should have UNDERSTOOD more about her, instead of still grappling with the unresolved duality of a character who can’t function in society, and yet is highly educated; who is trying to survive on the streets, and yet surrounded by ivory tower chatter. I can’t even decide if she is a repulsive bag lady (as she seems at times) or an alluring street gamine, (as she seems at others). I suspect that, if pressed, the author would be puzzled by my dumb dichotomies. Why not repulsive AND alluring? That may not make sense to me, but…

“It all makes sense to Maxine when she considers

life’s double nature, how close wonder is to horror:

how the first man walked on the moon

the same year as the Manson family killings,

Or how rubbish can be so fetching – oil puddle rainbows,

Streaks of smoke left behind by airplanes,

And that colorful garbage mass floating in the ocean

Featured in the New York Times-

Or how in classical mythology ichor

is an ethereal fluid flowing in the veins

of the gods, but in pathology it’s an acrid,

watery discharge, as from an ulcer.”

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