Perhaps the best way to tackle problematic art is to engage it with more art. To take its linguistic offerings and burst the frame of reference until the words yield something richer, fuller, more expansive. Marci Nelligan’s new poetry collection, The Ghost Manada (Black Radish Press, 2016), has done exactly that. And, so, so much more.
The novelist Cormac McCarthy—considered by some scholars to be one of the greatest living American authors (right up there with, say, Philip Roth or Toni Morrison)—is best known for his excessive violence and unflinchingly brutal depictions of the darkest parts of human nature. Those who know his work especially well, recognize that there is arguably not a single sympathetic female character in his entire published corpus. His women are usually fleeting apparitions, prostitutes, suicidal abandoners. Scholars working to make sense of McCarthy’s work and career have debated this problematic omission. How can a great author forsake an entire gender and still be great?
Nelligan’s first full length collection, Infinite Variations, also published by Black Radish Books (2011), sourced its language from both the Judeo-Christian Old Testament and Charles Darwin’s On the Origins of Species. The poetic mash up is a rich linguistic exploration of two supposedly opposing systems of worldview framing documents—the visceral tribal God of the ancient Hebrew people and Charles Darwin’s descriptions of the evolutionary processes of natural selection. What it achieves though, is a brilliant and cohesive poetics of origin.
And, because scholars often note a naturalistic philosophical worldview and Biblical timbre within McCarthy’s work, it feels natural, then, for The Ghost Manada to engage with Blood Meridian. Published in 1985, Blood Meridian has steadily grown in critical standing to be considered this century’s Moby Dick, a mythical-historical epic set in the 1850’s in the American Southwest that follows a wandering band of mercenaries hired to collect American Indian scalps. And, as they go about their task, they obviously commit genocide.
What Nelligan’s The Ghost Manada offers readers in response to Blood Meridian is an engaging, bloodthirsty dialogue, a quantum entanglement of myths, an idiosyncratic and beautiful poetics of siege.
In the first section of the collection, titled “Ghosts at the Threshold,” the poet confronts McCarthy’s omission of women by co-opting his language and rearranging the words on the page to highlight that absence, specifically in the instances where female characters are mentioned as standing in a doorway. In this way, the poet molds Blood Meridian’s language against itself, suggesting a void where more fully-formed female characters should reside. The doorways represent a liminal space where women exist as half-beings in the world of the story. Therefore, they are forced to haunt the epic.
Poem from section titled “Ghosts at the Threshold.”
The alternating middle sections work together to explore the lyrical potential of language, while further investigating ways to burst, colonize, and reclaim the frame of reference. Three sections titled “Ghost Lyrics” (1, 2, and 3) offer each a quote from McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, and then an inspired response. It is through the complex relationship between source text and defiant, fearless response that makes each of these poems electrifying. Yet, these poems would soar on their own, without the source text as a referent, for their linguistic inventiveness, penetrating clarity, and an eerie metaphysical longing—making the experience of the language a strange, sacred revelry.
the sky’s long loom
knits tattered shawls
to our eternities.” (page 21)
“Give me your ghost lips and your dew-soaked
garments…Never is your knowing, always after or
before. Tuck inside some cell your keening eye—
that bluest bird. So much dissolution that the future
must come down to consecrate the past. The line
between us fingertip, mine to yours; yours to mine.” (page 43)
Or, if none of those lines get you going, try these:
there is silence
to impale your desires,
but the songs they sing
lodge in your ears
like tiny sharpened
knives.” (page 46)
Nested in between the three “Ghost Lyrics” sections are the twin sisters of destruction, titled “The First Violence” and “The Second Violence.” In each of these sections, Nelligan takes the text of one of the Ghost Lyrics poems and assembles the language into a violent poetic tableau. The words and sentences are fragmented, scattered, hacked apart, turned upside down, sideways, or made to overlap other fragments of lines. The effect of these “violences” is haunting. Poems that were only a few pages back, whole and cohesive, are now cannibalized. In this way, the trauma enacted on the language is transferred to the reader, rendering and reclaiming a similar effect (perhaps) as Blood Meridian’s traumatic mass-scalping sequences—though in a wholly textual manner. Instead of merely reading, a person is forced to reckon with the violence, to face what was once beautiful, but now is torn apart—which is certainly an apt mode of composition for a book of poems that deals with subjugation and violence done to women across the ages.
Poem from section titled “The First Violence.”
The final section of the collection is titled, “This Final Margin,” and it is perhaps the most powerful series of poems in the book. It is also the only section of the text that isn’t mostly sourced from or inspired by specific portions of text from Blood Meridian. This section is a feast and a fever pitch. It pulls together the hauntings, the violences, and absences to deal more directly and personally with the historical idea and role of women in our world. It does so through dreamlike prose poems metaphorically situated, again, within the conceptual space of the threshold or doorway. The first poem sets up the series. The speaker watches a game show with her Grandmother where they “choose / a door and get whatever lies behind it, a luxury vacation / or a tragic pair of socks” (page 82). The poem simultaneously explores the idea of female lineage and the opportunities and limitations afforded to women throughout history. Questions come to mind. How far have we come on the issue of gender equality? How far to we have yet to go?
One poem that embodies these questions particularly well, presents an image of feminist “progress” as an endless task. The speaker’s attempts to go through “a heavy door,” the act of crossing the threshold that is repeated through much of this section, and which refers to the thresholds women occupy in the first section of the book, goes like this:
“…When I finally heave it open after much
pulling an exertion, another door appears. I open that,
and another, and so on and so on….” (page 87).
The “progress” seems futile and pointless; the work is hard and there is no luxury vacation on the other side of the door, as far as the poet sees.
In another poem there is an “outline of a woman / whose flesh is liquid mirror … distorted in its mercury surface whose margins shift and grow, / shrink, diminish, disappear” (page 86). In this man’s world (as in McCarthy’s), the form of the woman is misunderstood, obscured, made small.
Other poems present even more disturbing, symbolic images of women being silenced or otherwise oppressed. One in which a room full of drugged, institutionalized women have their lips sewn shut, with the sutures spelling the words “role model” in script font. Emily Dickinson makes a hallucinatory appearance in the animate wallpaper of a Victorian bedroom—a clear reference to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s famous early feminist short story “The Yellow Wallpaper.” An elephant gropes the speaker as she travels through a dark cave, the phallus-like trunk a menacing presence in the claustrophobic space underground. The judge—McCarthy’s famously sinister character from Blood Meridian—forces the speaker to sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in an empty theater, before pulling out a hunting knife. The speaker’s elder female family members show up in one poem shouting “You never knew!” while exposing their “breasts and chests, upper arms marked with a cross / hatching of angry scars.” Later in this poem the mother whispers, “Emptied! Carved out by degrees.” And, there are even more terrifying and illuminating scenarios of oppression to be explored, however I will let the reader encounter them on their own.
The Ghost Manada is not merely a critique, and not a celebration of McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Though it certainly criticizes, and certainly celebrates the novel—often decrying and relishing at the same time. This is the vein of tension that Nelligan mines, dynamites, and interrogates as she goes about her work—as a poet deeply entranced with McCarthy’s haunting language and narrative world, but also as a deeply formidable intellect reckoning with the novel’s “erasure of women” and “astonishing violence and genocide.”
Ultimately, the poetry in Marci Nelligan’s The Ghost Manada is courageous and devastating. Primal and elusive. Lavish (and, most importantly) excruciatingly beautiful. It will challenge your preconceptions of what poetry is and how it works. It will upend your notions of what humanity is capable of, and will invite you to reexamine progress. Even more, this work should invite readers to recast the role of women in the arts (and in the world) as one in which they figure as powerful, prominent, and absolutely essential—not merely as ghosts haunting the halls of history. This is the kind of critical art that our society desperately needs.
To get your hands on a copy of The Ghost Manada, go here. Or to hear Marci Nelligan read her work, come to The Turning Wheel at DogStar Books on Thursday, January 10 at 7 PM, where she will be the featured reader in this monthly reading series.