NECESSARY ANGELS by CAROLYN MAISELLYNN STRONGIN Reviews
Necessary Angels by Carolyn Maisel
(Lost Horse Press, Idaho, 2007)
FINDING ONE’S WAY BY THE MOON
“Like Smoke from an Enormous Fire”
On the heels of Hurricane Rita, Carolyn Maisel took herself into a doctor set up in temporary flood-clinic headquarters to check her bronchial cough only to learn that she must now engage in a fierce battle for her life. Her lung cancer had spread to liver and bone. A miracle was needed to save her. Prone to providence (in an off-beat manner, an ironic providence, to boot) Maisel did witness a miracle: Lost Horse Press, Idaho accepted her final manuscript Necessary Angels. This and one other book, Witnessing, published over thirty years ago comprise her life’s oeuvre.
She emerged more daring than ever, her voice and her embrace of existence, unthrottled having come thru a sorrowful life to this realization:
This Destroyer is not caged up in my imagination only-
in my single soul. The Brute we thought we drowned
a thousand times to build the city of the mind
lives in us all.
--“Evdokia, Meditations in Prokrovsky Monastery”
Her love for this green planet may be an Edenic reflection of her early years in Mississippi when, with two sisters and one brother, she ranged the freedom of their delta yards. Later, came pre-adolescence bringing its suffering largely a result of her brother’s accidental death, and her parents’ indogenous depression.
The cool monastic grace that lies upon the living here
is that none witness other’s agony.
Witnessing is the title of her first full-length book of poems, published by L’Epervier Press in the sixties. Maisel has proven herself to be both survivor and witness who peels back our eyes till we see. From early adolescence Maisel experiences disaster after disaster which includes surviving her only brother’s death by shotgun (mysteriously resembling childhood suicide.) She has been called upon to witness the ravaging body-burns her father endured when he fell into a catalytic cracker working at a Texas oil refinery. Too, she survived the violent act perpetrated against her in her forties by living beyond her own stabbing and rape in New Orleans, that city of “stone confections” and the jockey club, that city of which she was made poet Laureate. Her psychic and physical wounds left her battling post-traumatic stress for many years. Perhaps because of this continuous barrage, she has emerged engaged with a luminous life which would have reduced other people to ash and bone. Carolyn Maisel, like the phoenix, has risen from the ashes, and proceeded, dispassionately to document existence like a reporter struggling to get a handle on what is beyond words.
History is portrayed as two peacocks “engaged in a serious and beautiful struggle” (“Turning.”) Evacuating Port Arthur, Texas,in 100+ weather, she amazingly does make it out of an apartment with its ceiling on the floor. Like the Swedish journalist, among those who flee with her, Maisel is one of a group taking refuge in a Holiday Inn.. The Swedish journalist goes out “to photograph the storm.” Huge metal pieces, tree branches fly thru air hitting the building “like cannon shots. Journalists went crazy.” But the poet’s eye is that movie film which continues reeling, meticulously recording. “So the tiredest woman in Texas went to her sister’s house and then to the Emergency Room” for bronchitis only to learn that she was sleeping on a ticking time bomb.
Prone to providence, over the past thirty-five years Maisel has been quietly keeping, writing an American Vigil. Now, she has come to the last things. “It’s so strange to say, ‘That’s the last time I’ll ever see dark thunderheads, piling in the sky or the Mexican guy blowing leaves in the drugstore parking lot.”
In a backward glance, one can see how “dark thunderheads” piled early were prophetic, or the Mexican guy blowing leaves italicize her as a poet keeping an ardent, yet ironic, even wry American vigil from a benighted childhood onward. It’s a good thing she did not have a crystal ball. Now, the poet notes, her voice is beginning to change. This is the physical voice. I listen to the grieving of the soul watching the physical body husk off.
The woman who always “wanted to do something with the foghorn at Wellfleet whose beautiful voice sounded out” has done that thing, with other landscapes and emotional atmosphere, in the lyrics “Summer Kitchen," and “Gentilly Woods” among the strangest, most haunting of them planting her in the Southern tradition of William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and James Dickey. In Wellfleet as in Texas, the landscape is exquisite. Maisel may leave us a slender legacy, but like Satchmo whom the poet’s mother heard, lasting. “Blue Movie” unreel casting its spell by the minor fifth, the jazz chord.
Muse, it is a cold, sunlit day, the citizen
in the street hums contentedly, and I
have only you to speak to me – Speak!
Providentially, her poetry films the light at the end of night whether she ends up delivering vision, or child like the birth of her daughter, when labor pain almost killed her. She winds up in a city where the most amazing thing “is the twilight flight of several million bats that live under the Guadeloupe street bridge. . . You can sit on the hotel patio to see them when they emerge. It’s an endless spiral floating up in the air like smoke from an enormous fire.”
Finally, smoke from an enormous fire could serve as metaphor for her poems. A sickly child, she had come close to losing her life twice. Meningitis occurred in early childhood when her father was on a long military absence and learned of his daughter’s near-death experience by long distance. Her parents left the kids alone one day with a shotgun and her only brother shot himself. After this childhood suicide, and her mother’s recurring inborn depressions, did she tire of unnamable pain?
For a long time Carolyn Maisel has been looking at earth as those it comprised the final things:
This large and fine orange afternoon
steps in the French windows,
lies down to burn in a shy,
passionate rectangle on the rug.
This does not seem to be an entirely earthly afternoon, although all we have to taste it with are "Our mouths and hands, those soft animals of please -- / Creatures of the unfallen / angel who has paused considerately / over Gentilly Woods." Life is fraught with danger, partially in such close relations as mother-daughter. “Listen, Mother” says:
even the perfect-sighted
crash into one another
and when tears come for no reason
a stranger’s child is grieving / in us.”
Maternity exists in “the exhausted, naked lament of winter” which “is a mother.” She would like to hush and “swear it will be all right” but knows better.
In her recent journey, we can see that this student of the Iowa writer’s workshop (admired by both Marvin Bell and Yusef Kumonyakaa among others), has kept an American vigil which she rifts open again and again. Having taught a night class at Cedar Rapids, Iowa, with Norman Dubie and an admirer of the greatness of spirit in Denise Levertov, Maisel was imbued with spirit of chiaroscuro which permeates American poetry in the Twentieth Century. Maisel cuts thru dark valleys and wide plains. It is a fearsome landscape, one of extremes reminiscent of the Southern gothic vein in American writing. Carolyn Maisel is an introvert, intimate in emotion like Anna Akhamatove, a poet she admired. She charts her own eerily lit terrain: with her own “cool, monastic grace,” she is a cartographer of the known interlaced with the astonishing half-glimpsed, unknown things. Peacocks bloom at the junction where the poet is able to look at “this green planet” she has loved so intensely, curious about what’s on the other side.
"I find I'm quite curious about what's on the other side and I don't entirely regret leaving this green world of ours that I have loved with such passion. Valerie Martin entitled a book 'The Consolations of Nature.' I'm jealous because I feel that's a phrase that sums up my experience. No matter how bad things are, you can always find yourself by the moon."
Prone to providence? The work was burnished, mature from the start and grew more so. It would have gone thru even more subtle turns of language and vision; I believe it would have developed further. Carolyn Maisel died in March, 2006. Her final correspondence with me was both passionate and vehement revealing a soul unafraid of death, although finding the balancing daunting, challenging tipping as it did both light and dark to cast stranger shadows than she had ever known.
Muse, it is a cold sunlit day, the citizen
in the street hums contentedly, and I
have only you to speak to me—Speak!
Lynn Strongin's new book of poems, Short Visiting Hours for Children: Rembrandt's Smock, is forthcoming from Plain View Press, Austin, Texas. This review is a chapter from Strongin’s forthcoming book Returning the Light: Portraits of Hidden Faith in Fourteen Contemporary Poets, which is currently looking for a publisher. Maisel also appears in Strongin’s anthology The Sorrow Psalms: A Book of Twentieth Century Elegy (University of Iowa Press). A full introduction to Lynn Strongin is available at her website: http://members.shaw.ca/stronginweb/index.html