Sunday, April 28, 2013

BPR LIT TRIP 28 with Melanie Jordan

In Melanie Jordan’s “The Kiss of the Cage,” a first-person singular narrator says, “Magritte’s Healer can’t leave me, not even/ with his cane.” In this 28th trip through the Birmingham Poetry Review volume 40, the Steiny Road Poet observes an anguished soul whose father fears might suicide, but the narrator has taken solace in René Magritte’s bronze sculpture of a headless man whose rib cage is an airy birdcage. Still this person must be acting strangely because “the docents watch me, carefully unobservant,/ make sure I’m no defiler, no bomb.”

Like Leslie Jenike’s “I Am Love,” Jordan crafts a peripatetic meditation using art to talk about her emotional life. The main difference between these two poems is that Jordan spends time detailing a single piece of art and Jodan's poem is clearly ekphrastic.

Here’s how this poem of eleven tercets, three couplets, and one single line stanza opens:

Only a block or so to visit him, the sculpture
seated like a man: a birdcage for a torso,
gangling legs in littletramp shoes. Funny

The littletramp shoes bring to mind Charlie Chaplin and the word Funny following the shoes melds without levity as the narrator states she is being watched by the worried docents. (Though the Steiny Poet chooses the feminine pronoun she to discuss the narrator, the poem does not reveal the gender of the narrator.) The complete thought is, “Funny// how the docents watch me, carefully unobservant,/ make sure I’m no defiler, no bomb.” Beginning with the Healer’s cane, the narrator sketches the sculpture using a pen and then ruminates on an earlier part of the summer when her father stood watch worried she might take an overdose of pills. Then she returns to the present moment:

So here I stand, ask, dare: I smile
sometimes from the pressure, amused at the two
silhouettes on the blank gallery wall,

happy raconteurs.  . . .

Who or what are those two silhouettes on the gallery wall? At first glance, the Steiny Poet thought it was the narrator and Magritte’s Healer, but as the poem progresses those happy storytellers (raconteurs) are more likely the narrator and her former lover, the one who has caused her this angst, the one who now seems to be represented by the sculpture with the birdcage torso that is a man without a head or internal organs like a heart, the seat of love.

happy raconteurs. Whatever poison is urned
in me burns like a floe. It looks for exit
from my catacombed head. I’m a room

with eight walls. I’m an ancestor asking
him to trepan. The ember moves up my spine;
I can feel him at the core, feel the thumping

call from my own chest, regular, meaning
I’m still here I’m still here

like a droplet of glass next to its lover,
a cracked window glittering the earth. . . .

Again, expectations for an uplifted mood are dashed when the line beginning with happy raconteurs moves to whatever poison. The narrator’s description of herself seems to mirror the sculpture in its oddity. Her body becomes an urn. Her head is catacombed (a set of burial chambers for all the happy moments passed?). And she is a room with eight walls. The octagon-shaped room—or should the Steiny Poet dare to think those walls are contiguous?—reminds her of David Wagoner’s “Poem” that has an exterior world of six sides. Both Jordan’s and Wagoner’s worlds are disorienting. Jordan’s insistent line in the first of the three couplets, “I’m still here I’m still here” socks in the disorientation and the desire to overcome that chaos.

The poem ends as the narrator observes the bird sitting on the ledge at the opening of the Healer’s torso-cum-birdcage.

a cracked window glittering the earth. The bird

could be hobbled, the way it hovers there on edge.
But it isn’t. She willingly meets her double there,

and the kiss of the cage which is always open.

The narrator expects the dove-like bird is waiting for her mate. The position of the bird seems to indicate she has left room for her double. The kiss of the cage might be the door of the cage closing but in this sculpture, the opening is without closure. The narrator, like the bird, seems to waiting for love to return and this is why she keeps "sapping the gallery,// regular as a junkie, not sure at first/ what pulled me to the bronze and satchel/ of a hollow man, to the cloaked cage// we're all made of."

Lots of musical lines in this poem to savor, starting and ending with the phrase the kiss of the cage. The Steiny Poet thinks this poem has operatic potential.

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