The Urgency of Memory
A Review of Marilene Phipps's Crossroads and Unholy Water
Graywolf Press, 1999
In contrast, one can, and does, find pleasure in Marilene Phipps's first full-length collection of poems, Crossroads and Unholy Water. Not the light, transient pleasure of a novel only suitable for the beach, but pleasure of the soul-satisfying kind. The book invites deeper reading, rather than demanding it.
Phipps book has the tried and true stuff of fine poetry—remarkable images, striking metaphors, big themes—without being stuffy. It covers the full range of the human drama—its glory, its misery, its humor and its pathos. While not every poem dazzles, many do, and all become stronger in the context of the book as a whole.
At first glance one can see that Phipps is a brilliant imagist. But not content with image, her language transforms sensual experience into metaphor and keen observation into allegory. She renders landscapes and people equally well, not only through image, but through dialogue, as exemplified in the poem "Oksilya". In the stanza below, we are privy to a conversation between the speaker, now a grown woman, and her former servant (Oksilya):
I want your photograph,
The stanza illuminates the speaker's character and the huge gap between the two women's experience. Its rhyme, subtler for the short, run-on lines, allows ordinary speech to resonate as verse. The stanza contains powerful visual details which ground us in a specific place (the coal kitchen, the various fruit trees). It also speaks to a recurrent theme in the book—how does memory transform and illuminate the past?
The tensions between hope and hopelessness, beauty and filth, meaningless death and meaningful sacrifice give these poems a taut power. In the book's middle section "Life in Neret," Phipps paints a series of vignettes, many with poor women at their center. These women wake up and lie down to the sound, smell and feel of poverty—soiled clothes, hungry or sick children. Their domestic arrangements give them little solace—absentee or violent boyfriends and husbands, children who, out of cold necessity, put themselves first.
In "Ti Kikit," an orphaned girl must turn to prostitution to survive. She is then cheated out of her meager 40-cent rate by a gang of men:
Ti Kikit's face is crushed on the windshield,
Phipps draws us into Ti Kikit's pain through detail (the crush of the windshield) and through analogy (the suffering of the "tail-whipped" mule). Sound is also at work here—the brutally clipped "white" and "whipped" against the open wounds of "all," "raw" and "enlarging."
Recurrent themes and images add power and unify the individual poems. One such theme is the parallel between the human and animal worlds—between the suffering and sacrifice of animals and that of the Haitian people ("The Bull at Nan Souvnans," "Man Nini," "Pigs and Wings," etc.). The same sisal rope which ties up a bull or a chicken awaiting slaughter appears around a beloved godfather's neck who dies at the hands of the dreaded Tontons Macoutes; the same sisal rope gets Ti Kikit her nickname:
Ti Kikit earned the small bird's name
Ms. Phipps's poetic palette is as vibrant as that of her painting, but filled with shadow. During adolescence Ms. Phipps described herself as a "poet maudit" (now laughingly). "Rimbaud, Verlaine and Beaudelaire were my Gods then." While the tension between 'spleen' and 'ideal,' 'flowers' and 'evil' lives on in Phipps's work, humor adds buoyancy.
In "Pink," a funny and insightful portrait of family life, the female protagonist takes delight in a cheap T-shirt:
The I Love New York and silver heart
Later the speaker's daughter and husband try to steal the T-shirt from her. Here is her conclusion:
You've got to know what's yours in life. Set
The last lines show with bitter humor how a life, especially one of extreme poverty, constantly tests human virtues like trust, charity and love. They also speak to the resilience of the people of Haiti, who've been cheated and robbed by the leaders they've trusted the most, yet retain a spirituality and hopefulness.
Phipps's dramas highlight the frailties inherent in all forms of human love—in eros as well as in agape. In another humorous poem, "Elixir's Advice," a widow offers the following counsel:
As soon as your husband is dead, slap him
Again, we see the human drama of the family unfold. Problems with family (humorously) extend beyond the present, even beyond life, into the spirit world.
The struggle that ensues when one tries to write about a past that no longer exists, and a present which is constantly changing, gives Phipps's poems an urgency. One feels her groping, as a photographer does in the darkroom, to allow new words to wash over old memories. It's a delicate process and time-consuming. And, as Phipps reminds us, certain details from the past cannot be exposed. Some must remain muted so that others can be seen.
Ironically, several of Phipps's most directly personal poems—those about her immediate family—are the least satisfying on the page ("Queen of the Meadow," "Old Useless and Ugly," "Gaetan," "The Gold Watch"). These poems tread heartfelt ground, but their images sometimes lack Phipps's trademark exactitude, their endings feeling tenuous or truncated. Distance (physical or metaphorical) seems to allow Phipps the poetic latitude to cull from the ruins of memory her most powerful and indelible images.