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.”

Original Sins : Arthur Machen – “The Great God Pan”

“In every grain of wheat there lies hidden the soul of a star. A creepy, creepy death star.”

Arthur Machen’s novella “The Great God Pan” still holds a mighty sway over all the Weird Fiction crowd, (and if you’ve ever written nonsense about “lifting the veil between our world and the inconceivable, terrifying reality just beyond human understanding,” it probably holds sway over you too.) I feel that there is no H. P. Lovecraft without Machen… and that a lot of other people would also vanish from the Horror Family Tree, or write very differently indeed. (Just now: The  final section of Stephen King’s “Revival” borrows so markedly from “The Great God Pan” that I felt a tug toward the older classic, the only thing I recall reading from Machen. This gap is to be remedied soon.)

Image result for The Great God Pan

ABOVE: “God Pan is Not Great”- Christopher Hitchens’ blurb

Machen hasn’t been exactly re-appraised by critics, but he HAS attracted some recent feminist scholarship for the perceived misogyny in this story. While it indeed involves a rule-breaking Lilith-like woman whose overt sexuality both seduces and distracts men to death, she’s merely the conduit to a far more monstrous “great naked MAN”. Is sex the unnameable horror around which the story dances? Arguably, sure – but the story makes it clear that the source is not female but, well, pansexual. The “monster,” when ultimately revealed, is pointedly omni-gendered.

No, “The Great God Pan” has sins other than misogyny; it set too vivid a precedent for plenty of inferior weird fiction that aped its style and magnified the flaws of that style. The things that work here, this one time, surfaced elsewhere as unbearable annoyances. What are those things?

1) Endless telling-and-never-showing. When you get down to it, “The Great God Pan” is comprised of a series of polite, sensible conversations between gentlemen discussing exciting things that happened elsewhere.

2) Unlikely epistles and diary entries that surface with the greatest of ease (“December, 23, 188- Dear Mimsy, I hope the following finds you well and in delightful spirits as ever. I am currently less than ship-shape myself since I am composing this unforgivably brief note while a Demon I have conjured from the depths of Hades attempts to penetrate my modest drawing room here in Yorkshire. Oh, drat it, it has burst through the door, howling and crawling ever closer, and as its clammy claws close around my neck the thought does cross my mind that maybe now is not the moment to dedicate myself to letter-writing. P.S.: Do tell Cousin Wilbur I may never repay that tenner I owed him, what with this inconvenient Death by Demon.”)

3) Incredibly stupid characters who could not put two-and-two together with a bucket of glue. (To be found in every other horror story since.)

(“Before his violent death, W was wooing a mysterious woman whose initials were M. E..”

“Hmmm, X was involved with a mysterious woman before his death as well; but he always called her Mary.”

“Interestingly, Y was ALSO dating a mysterious woman before his death; however, I believe her name was Ellen.”

“Huh. It’s funny you fellas mention that, because shortly before his death, Z had similarly fallen in love. Couldn’t be relevant to the case, though, because HER name was Mary Ellen Killerwoman.”

“Dashed puzzling, the whole thing. If only there was some way to link all these deaths!””)

4) Vague, overwrought, faux-archaic mumbling about unnameable, unspeakable horrors so primal and terrifying that, if words were ever invented to describe them, their mere invocation would evaporate your brain as your cranium imploded. Fortunately, no such words are available to mere mortal tongues, and you just gotta trust the writer when he tells you the characters saw “something” really creepy. What was it? Best not to talk about it. Use your own imagination… nothing’s scarier than your imagination, right? Picture your naked grandpa rubbing his sweaty nether regions all over your PS4 controller or something.

“The Great God Pan” is the genesis of all those sins, but somehow it works. Even Lovecraft couldn’t pull it all off as smoothly half the time. As for all  the people who came later and weren’t half as good as Machen or Lovecraft…

…MAY THE REALITY-RENDING CLAWS OF THE FEAR-THAT-WAS-BORN-BEFORE-FEARS DESCEND UPON YOU, HACK YOUR COMPUTER, AND ERASE YOUR DERIVATIVE STORY FROM YOUR HARD DRIVE.

RATING: MASTERPIECE! in its genre- and yet spawner of horrors.

P.S.:

Elizabeth Barret Browning’s “A Musical Instrument” may have given Machen a title. I am not too fond of some of the repetition below (the two “turbidly”s particularly bug me) but there’s true insight in that final stanza.

I.
WHAT was he doing, the great god Pan,
    Down in the reeds by the river ?
Spreading ruin and scattering ban,
Splashing and paddling with hoofs of a goat,
And breaking the golden lilies afloat
    With the dragon-fly on the river.

 

II.
He tore out a reed, the great god Pan,
    From the deep cool bed of the river :
The limpid water turbidly ran,
And the broken lilies a-dying lay,
And the dragon-fly had fled away,
    Ere he brought it out of the river.

 

III.
High on the shore sate the great god Pan,
    While turbidly flowed the river ;
And hacked and hewed as a great god can,
With his hard bleak steel at the patient reed,
Till there was not a sign of a leaf indeed
    To prove it fresh from the river.

 

IV.
He cut it short, did the great god Pan,
    (How tall it stood in the river !)
Then drew the pith, like the heart of a man,
Steadily from the outside ring,
And notched the poor dry empty thing
    In holes, as he sate by the river.

 

V.
This is the way,’ laughed the great god Pan,
    Laughed while he sate by the river,)
The only way, since gods began
To make sweet music, they could succeed.’
Then, dropping his mouth to a hole in the reed,
    He blew in power by the river.

 

VI.
Sweet, sweet, sweet, O Pan !
    Piercing sweet by the river !
Blinding sweet, O great god Pan !
The sun on the hill forgot to die,
And the lilies revived, and the dragon-fly
    Came back to dream on the river.

 

VII.
Yet half a beast is the great god Pan,
    To laugh as he sits by the river,
Making a poet out of a man :
The true gods sigh for the cost and pain, —
For the reed which grows nevermore again
    As a reed with the reeds in the river.

 

John Donne – “The Poems”

“For God’s sake hold your tongue, and let me love” 

– Perhaps the best beginning to a love poem evah. John Donne, “The Canonization.”

ABOVE: There were fleas inside this book.

John Donne may pass for gravely holy, but we all first read him for the sheer giddy pleasure of chasing his sexy metaphors down unlikely alleys. “The Canonization” has both strains in one.

For God’s sake hold your tongue, and let me love,
         Or chide my palsy, or my gout,
My five gray hairs, or ruined fortune flout,
         With wealth your state, your mind with arts improve,
                Take you a course, get you a place,
                Observe his honor, or his grace,
Or the king’s real, or his stampèd face
         Contemplate; what you will, approve,
         So you will let me love.

 

Alas, alas, who’s injured by my love?
         What merchant’s ships have my sighs drowned?
Who says my tears have overflowed his ground?
         When did my colds a forward spring remove?
                When did the heats which my veins fill
                Add one more to the plaguy bill?
Soldiers find wars, and lawyers find out still
         Litigious men, which quarrels move,
         Though she and I do love.

 

Call us what you will, we are made such by love;
         Call her one, me another fly,
We’re tapers too, and at our own cost die,
         And we in us find the eagle and the dove.
                The phœnix riddle hath more wit
                By us; we two being one, are it.
So, to one neutral thing both sexes fit.
         We die and rise the same, and prove
         Mysterious by this love.

 

We can die by it, if not live by love,
         And if unfit for tombs and hearse
Our legend be, it will be fit for verse;
         And if no piece of chronicle we prove,
                We’ll build in sonnets pretty rooms;
                As well a well-wrought urn becomes
The greatest ashes, as half-acre tombs,
         And by these hymns, all shall approve
         Us canonized for Love.

 

And thus invoke us: “You, whom reverend love
         Made one another’s hermitage;
You, to whom love was peace, that now is rage;
         Who did the whole world’s soul contract, and drove
                Into the glasses of your eyes
                (So made such mirrors, and such spies,
That they did all to you epitomize)
         Countries, towns, courts: beg from above
         A pattern of your love!”
RATING: MASTERPIECE

The Accidental Satanist : John Milton – “Paradise Lost”

 “Lucifer” has just reminded me: I was due to revisit John Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” I’d gone through it in college, but it was a rushed read, part of a course  that also expected us to inhale, in a few months, half of the Norton Anthology of Poetry. I recall “Beowulf,” John Keats’ “Endymion,” William Blake’s “Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” Edmund Spenser’s “The Faerie Queene,” and Lord Byron’s “Don Juan” all got some prominence. That sort of diet fattens, but fatness and good digestion are not necessarily concurrent.

Which is to say, I do not remember particularly enjoying “Paradise Lost,” as much as scavenging for the essay-ready “quotable bits,” which luckily were plentiful.

And upon revisiting, the surprise: aside from the quotable bits,  I’m STILL lukewarm about it.

ABOVE: Lost Boy

It’s obviously a dissenting opinion. Look how apologetic I get right away:

The STORY is amazing. This is Biblical fan-fiction that, blasphemous as it may sound, outdoes its source. It is simply the ultimate epic about good and evil, fuller, deeper, more poetic… More INSPIRED, so to speak. Milton spins out his 12 books of blank verse  out  out of the first three chapters of Genesis, stray Biblical allusions, peripheral angel lore, gnostic and medieval folklore. When he can’t find enough philosophical material in centuries of ecclesiastical commentary, he expands his religious universe to include folk legends and Greco-Roman allusions. When even that fails to feed his all-consuming genius, he simply MAKES THINGS UP. That takes chutzpah: it is very easy for irreverent post-deist modernity to expand upon and remix Biblical tales, but Milton was  a fierce believer, one who must have had carved in his heart the closing words of the King James Bible:

“For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book: If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book.

And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.”

ABOVE: Hell’s Angels

Why then, is it ok when Milton “adds unto these things”? Because if Dante could add upon Virgil, and Virgil could add upon Homer, those were role models enough. Also, he’s inflamed by the vision that illuminated everything in his blindness: when he’s inventing n0n-Scriptural events, he fully believes in them too. He is literally an ORIGINAL believer, originating his own religion through his poetry. The writing of “Paradise Lost” was an earnest religious ritual, a ritual half-Christian and half-pagan. If there is some contradiction or hypocrisy in Milton’s praying for the help of a Greek Goddess to sustain him through the tale of monotheistic zealousness, Milton never noticed. Fanaticism is its own cognitive dissonance.

That’s the good.

The bad ( for me) is that I can’t escape the feeling that our insistence on the majesty of “Paradise Lost”‘ has two dubious causes. First, that the English writers bowed to it in Imperial pride because in its absence, the English language is bereft of a great epic. “Beowulf” is barely English; “The Faerie Queen” is incomplete; there’s too many fart jokes in Chaucer.

The second source of its appeal lies on some cheesy proto-Heavy Metal fixations. Forget Gustave Dore; “Paradise Lost” should have been illustrated by the dude who does Jim Steinman / Meatloaf album covers.

ABOVE: Paradise Lost by the Dashboard Light

As for Milton’s language, it has the effect of any dazzling fireworks; too much of it, and it turns into eye-straining monotony. The grandiloquent pomposity grates on me. I know, I know, if you can’t be grandiloquently pompous about the Ultimate Battle Between Good and Evil, what CAN you be grandiloquently pompous about? But Milton gets too proud-fully, sinfully excited by the overwrought iron work of his own verse, which is fit to decorate the infernal gates. And the thing it’s not as distant from the cosmic ponderousness of Stan Lee’s Silver Surfer as people would like to think.

ABOVE: Are you SURE he’s not quoting “Paradise Lost”?

If Milton loses to Dante in appeal, the reason is simple: Dante knew that when you’re putting the reader through hell, you gotta throw in a couple of jokes.

There IS one ironic joke in “Paradise Lost,” the one any modern critic and reader immediately confronts, but I do not think Milton was as conscious of it as we elect to think he was. That uncomfortable irony, of course, is that Satan is the goddamned hero, (er, no pun intended.) Satan is brave, noble, Achillean. His cursed heel is, of course, his unwillingness to be a slave in Heaven. “Better to reign in Hell! They may take away his soul, but they can not take away his freedom!”  He comes out looking a LOT better than the tyrannical, paranoid, wrathful King Lear of the Heavenly throne.

Even the title suggests this epic is written from Satan’s perspective; it’s not called “Paradise Cleansed of Traitors.” I agree with William Blake that Milton was not aware of his slant: “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.”

ABOVE: Paradise Pity

Here’s a further irony:

Milton decried grand churches and opulent temples, whose gateways opened to idolatry. Still he wrote a grand temple in verse, and set many memorable idols around the iconostasis. Satan; Beelzebub; Belial; Moloch; the horrible Sin and Death; the copulating Adam and Eve; even sword-swinging Michael… they are all much more arresting than the irascible Father by the altar, threatening to annihilate Creation at the slightest provocation, or the bashful Son tugging at his sleeve, trying to keep the old man from losing his mind again and again. Not only does Milton fail to justify God’s ways to man: he even fails to justify God’s ways to his Son, who seems as mortified by Dad’s uncool behavior as the average teenager caught with the parental units at the mall.

Robert Burns: “I have bought a pocket Milton, which I carry perpetually about with me, in order to study the sentiments – the dauntless magnanimity, the intrepid, unyielding independence, the desperate daring, the noble defiance of hardship, in that great personage, SATAN.” 

John Milton: the accidental Satanist.

RATING: Ugh. I feel absurd saying “Paradise Lost” is not a MASTERPIECE!!! How about this? It’s a masterpiece AND a devilish chore.

POST-SCRIPT:

ABOVE: Bat out of Hell

Thought it might be fitting to go out on 8 glorious minutes of Meatloaf:

The Destruction of Error : W. H. Auden – “Selected Poems”

An early W. H. Auden poem, from October 1929.

ABOVE: Before the wrinkles set in

“It is time for the destruction of error.

The chairs are being brought in from the garden,

The summer talk stopped on that savage coast

Before the storms, after the guests and birds:

In sanatoriums they laugh less and less,

Less certain of cure; and the loud madman

Sinks now into a more terrible calm.

The falling leaves know it, the children,

At play on the fuming alkali-tip

Or by the flooded football ground, know it–

This is the dragon’s day, the devourer’s:

Orders are given to the enemy for a time

With underground proliferation of mould,

With constant whisper and the casual question,

To haunt the poisoned in his shunned house,

To destroy the efflorescence of the flesh,

To censor the play of the mind, to enforce

Conformity with the orthodox bone,

With organised fear, the articulated skeleton.

You whom I gladly walk with, touch,

Or wait for as one certain of good,

We know it, we know that love

Needs more than the admiring excitement of union,

More than the abrupt self-confident farewell,

The heel on the finishing blade of grass,

The self-confidence of the falling root,

Needs death, death of the grain, our death.

Death of the old gang; would leave them

In sullen valley where is made no friend,

The old gang to be forgotten in the spring,

The hard bitch and the riding-master,

Stiff underground; deep in clear lake

The lolling bridegroom, beautiful, there.”