Every time you try to make a meme—literary or historic or geographic—of the Mid-Atlantic, much less one in which the three align, you are upended by the power of some new discovery of person, place or past. The region’s countless attempts to legislate tolerance, for example, reflect, in history, the Sisyphean task of trying to reconcile overarching schemes with the countless occurrences that upend those schemes. Soon it is the new discoveries themselves, and not your powers of observation, much less synthesis, that seem to be carrying forward the conversation, and because the source of lyric knowledge, the source, that is, of literary inspiration, has yet to be explained, much less agreed upon, but is almost always described as not bound by traditional laws of transmission, for writers of the Mid-Atlantic, the medium for this two-way transfer, whatever it may be, is its light. Whether in stormy suddenness or quiet twilit beckoning, for these writers, the light that sculpts the landscape mantles the region’s meanings as well, inscribing not only its objects, but also its observers, with the miracle of self-forgetfulness, and, like inspiration, as if not to overstay its welcome, rests for a moment and is gone.
Because the Mid-Atlantic is home to four full seasons, our gaze, in our working and waking hours, follows this changing light. To the north and south of us, the light seems to stay longer in one place, and like the literary reputations of Amherst, Massachusetts, and Oxford, Mississippi, it stays in holding patterns around their respective luminaries for longer periods of time. Here, however, literary reputations tend to shine for a moment and disappear. Maryland’s J.R. Salamanca, for example, whose book Lilith, published in 1961, and, made into a movie with Warren Beatty in 1964, contains, along with his other books like The Lost Country and Embarkation, some of the best writing this country has ever produced—and yet his work is all but forgotten.
All the historic capitols of the country are here, too, as well as its current capitol and White House—physical proof, on the one hand, that enormous status can disappear and, on the other, that election results along with the term limits built into the Constitution often bestow and withdraw tremendous prestige in an instant and make for a region where alighting and leaving, even for its long-term residents, is de rigueur. Here, too, is an America in miniature, a place of extremes, where, if you do not find a middle ground—cultural or geographical—you must at least cross that middle ground again and again while navigating between its poles. This phenomenon produces a certain kind of sensibility, a middle sensibility—not to be confused with middling or compromising—but one that can navigate these extremes and, therefore, lose itself in its surroundings, become quiet in the presence of its people, its places, its light, and, when inspired, be illuminated from the inside by the same light by which objects around it are suffused.
So if the literary Mid-Atlantic has no libretto, it does have a leitmotif. There is the myth of light as inspiration—Apollo, the god of poetry, is also the god of light—for it is only the poet, after all, who, as Randall Jarrell said, ventures out in the thunderstorm hoping for lightning to strike. In the Mid-Atlantic, the Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the United States, with more than 150 tributaries and nearly 12,000 miles of shoreline covering six states and the District of Columbia, is where this light is born, and the rivers and tributaries and towns and cities and low-lying wetlands that drain the Appalachians, as well as the stories and poems that come out of it, are its local habitations and its names. This light that links up and that alights and leaves just as quickly is not best defined by state or demographic boundaries, but, in this middle place along the East Coast, by the way it inscribes itself on the commons of the Chesapeake Bay. Ecologically it is one place—it was for Captain John Smith, as well as for the American Indian societies and cultures of the 17th century—and so too it is for its writers; its inhabitants, observers and chroniclers alike, can sometimes be seen pausing for a moment, whether standing under a vast wash of tender rose on the Severn River or among L’Enfant’s or Olmsted’s visions around the U.S. Capitol, gazing at the clouds blown raggedly apart, held spellbound by versions of the same splendor, all of them part of the Chesapeake Bay’s circulatory system of light.
Saundra Rose Maley, author of Disappearing Act, appears to be held in this light’s sway as well, but as a poet for whom a link between light and sensibility and inspiration is also linked, it seems, to pulling away from that light—as if her poems were the spots one sees after looking at the sun—or, pursuing the Jarrell analogy, after the lightning has struck. Sometimes you get the sense that she has simply erased whole lines from longer versions in a kind of reversed sculpture—carving away the stone not to find the figure, but to release it:
A quick wind shaking green
Sunlight and leaves framed
And quartered beyond glass panes
Indescribable and green
Among seasons I cannot repeat
Made to stand for something—
A flash between fall and winter
A meaning suggested and gone
Already shadow eats its way
Up the trunk and swallows the branches
Throughout the book, Maley retains the right to remain silent regarding definitives—whether memoiristic or aphoristic—and to write of untransmittability while, at the same time, somehow transmitting it. For Maley, silence can come through in sound, clarity in screens designed to obscure it, and voyages described by voyages that are not taken:
“Diary of a Whisper”
It is a beautiful river
I listen to it often
When she left
I opened the window
And let my bird fly off
For a long time
I looked after the disappearing wings
Again, I hear the river
Is it rain
Or someone calling?
The dedication to the volume, “She sang a song and went on,” is for her niece, Nina Edilia Maley (1989-2009), but might just as well apply to the poet, for if anyone has an ars poetica for which the urge to write is equal to the urge to bury, it is Maley. When Sid Gold introduced her earlier this year at one of his Third Saturday Readings at Robert Harper Books in Riverdale, MD, he said that he had known her since 1980 and made a point of relating that, “So many people out there do nothing but self-promote. Saundra’s the opposite, you’ve got to pull it out of her.” Though she is in her seventh decade and has been writing all her life, Disappearing Act is her first book. Her publisher, Merrill Leffler, of Dryad Press, has compared her poetry to Lorine Niedecker’s for her spare style and, presumably, for the fact that Niedecker’s first volume was not published until Niedecker, too, was late in life:
“On Not Having Written for a Long While”
I look out over this deep white forest
For a place to begin and it is always the same.
I stop just before the invisible trees—
Afraid to be trapped like my grandfather
In the miles of Eckhart mines, or condemned
Like his heavy wife, to a black dress
And dark resentments—I shudder
Against this stopping and the deep
White woods growing darker.
Often good poetry—and therefore the act of its authorship—is dangerous, for it gains power only as it begins to make a case against its author. The good poet begins in the unknown and comes to a meeting place with whatever thing makes her terrified to continue—the passage from the unknown into the known is sometimes the passage from life into death. Lyric knowledge is only available for those willing to risk their own skin. In Maley’s case, pursuing a line of lyric reasoning can mean falling into the same trap her grandparents did.
To make a work of art, for poets like Maley, is to assemble, not to name—for them, the world is made out of the relationships between things, not the things themselves. The earth is not held up by Atlas, after all, but by gravity, an invisible force. So is the life made—and the poem—by what cannot be seen, what cannot be told. Despite the fiduciary claims of our memoir-obsessed literary culture, its absorption in facts make it dumb to life. Art is in the way of seeing, of assembling, and the depth and power and voice of those assembled materials will always be in inverse proportion to how deeply the facts are buried—that is, how far out of sight. Maley’s poems shimmer with the depth of what she will not, cannot, or dare not say. Facts inhabit her poems the way the dryads inhabits forests: you don’t see them because they are shy, but you feel them, you suspect they are there. Here are two poems:
It presses down on me,
A purpled palm, down
And so goddamned beautiful—
We are all dying.
Pale blue opens between its fingers,
Saying, I am here—
I am here, too.
“A Small Green Leaf”
Into the palm of my hand
I ask its name
On March 26, Maley was at the Waverly Gallery in Bethesda, MD, and read the first poem in her book, “Wind from the Sea,” after the painting by Andrew Wyeth. “It’s nothing but a curtain lifting,” she said of the introductory poem, “but it does so much.” She spoke of how Robert Frost would sit before the painting Wind from the Sea for hours and how the movement of a curtain in the breeze had thrilled her since she was a child. What Wyeth said of his most famous painting, Christina’s World, might best describe Maley’s ars poetica; he said that it might have been a better painting had he left Christina out.
In addition to editing the letters of the American poet James Wright, Maley has written a 700-page study of his early translations, in which she finds seeds, in a translation of Rilke, of the groundbreaking George Doty poem in Wright’s first book, The Green Wall, where poetry is imagined as a climb out of, not into, the walled garden of paradise. Maley’s poem “Winged Goddess,” about a statue of Nike in which “[o]nly one wing had survived,” suggests Rilke’s encounter with the statue of Apollo, recounted in his poem, “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” where he learned he must change his life. Maley, like Rilke, like Wright, expresses ideas with, as W.H. Auden said, physical rather than intellectual symbols. Maley and Wright, it appears, had to reconstruct fractured psyches, and both used Rilke to restore their lost connections, just as Rilke used Rodin and Cézanne for the same purpose.
Maley dedicates a poem, “To a Defeated Saviour,” to Wright, and in it makes a pilgrimage to his Ohio town where she “pays [her] respects” to a house that isn’t there, and where she concludes, at the end of part one, that even though she has studied Wright for years, “I don’t belong here.” Nevertheless, just as Wright did with his predecessors, Maley feels responsible for, and engages in, the great conversation between writers present and past, and finds him, not in a mapped place, but on the road, on the page:
The journey back is long
I lull into the incandescent blue
Of early sleep.
Sudden beads of light
Slip past like the first flashes
Of a dream.
The deep black bowl
Of the valley fills with small gems
One by one
And two glowing coals burn
Like sanctuary lamps
On the back of a Buick up ahead—
I am not alone
Sweet Jesus of graffiti,
I fall into your fluorescent arms.
Suspended on the long white line
Between your poem and mine
I am going home.
It glimmers in the distance
Like a jewel
I could hold in my hand
—“To a Defeated Savior”
for James Wright
Wright’s entire corpus could be encapsulated in Maley’s “quest for home.” As Wright himself said, “[T]he poet extends his hands to the child in the darkness; and, as poet and child embrace, they look about them to see that all has grown light again, it is the first dawn, the passing of time was only an evil dream, and the poet has come home to himself at last.” (Fittingly, in 1976, Maley’s publisher, Leffler’s Dryad Press, published Wright’s Moments of the Italian Summer.)
When Maley read at the Kensington Row Bookshop on December 2, 2015, just after her book came out, she spoke of “trying to figure out how you put poems you wrote years ago into one place after decades of assembling manuscripts that were never sent out:”
“Stanley Kunitz at the Pearly Gates, Greeted by Walt Whitman”
So Walt, it’s you who greets me at this hour
As once in a dream
You brought a glass of milk
And waited until I slept.
Forgive my early measure of your song
Windy, I thought, inelegant
Yet I followed your lead, stood up
For the ignorant and crazy
Never argued about God, took off my hat
Love, strange word, like roses,
I could not sleep
Poised for my father’s return
I looked too long at stars.
Glad to go, he did not wait to meet
A pastel portrait, snatched from me
A slap that burned my cheek,
Her only explanation.
Tell me this is heaven, Walt,
That I came along the proper path.
To assert that the Mid-Atlantic, as a region, has certain properties that influence its writers, is not to say that they are regionalists—a term of subtle disparagement, with its notions of backwardness and insularity. Sarah Orne Jewett, dismissed in her day as a regionalist, wrote, in her short story “The White Heron,” about the road not taken as well as Robert Frost did. Maley, whose ars poetica of roads not taken, if not in life, then at least in poetry, eschews grand statements of meaning for the wake of the water as it recedes from such statements, her pouring away poetics finds patterns and symmetries in memory that, if it is knowledge, it is lyric knowledge, belated knowledge, that aligns her with Niedecker’s spare language, self-abnegation, and loneliness as well as with other Mid-Atlantic writers. Like other Mid-Atlantic poets, Maley’s work embodies a “region” whose light, if it represents the impulse that calls poetry into life, also represents the moment before artistic creation, and whether it is described as a mood, a coloring, a magic transformation, a spell, or a knack to put oneself in the place where the throat catches, it is also the source of lyric inspiration, which involves the mutability and change that begins in the unknown and, like poetry itself, communicates, as T.S. Eliot said, before it is understood.
In 1893, historian Frederick Jackson Turner called the Mid-Atlantic the “typically American region” for its “varied society.” He wrote that it was “a region mediating between New England and the South….Even the New Englander…tarrying in New York or Pennsylvania on his westward march, lost the acuteness of his sectionalism on the way.” This mediating quality is still everywhere present—if talking about the sky, for example, now as then, nowhere else in America are the annual migrations of birds encountered as they are in the Mid-Atlantic. In many respects, it is a heterogeneous intersection, and so for Mid-Atlantic poets like Maley, refrain can mean stop as much as it can mean repeated stanza. And if it seems Maley, like most good poets, is conscious that the writing of poetry requires that she meet the things she is most scared of coming the other way, if her power is the power of the meaning withheld, so is the region’s. While Maley’s refusal to engage in meaning-making is also the very essence of the postmodern (if not in practice, at least in the philosophic sense), locating her within a contemporary canon—whether post-modernist, modernist, neither or both—constitutes itself a battery of value judgments that she would not recognize. In her poem, “Transfiguration,” she “long[s] for wings, not words.”
As someone who is always noticing, whether or not she is noticed in return, Maley has the negative capability of the region and, because of that, is sensitive, absorbent of its invisible currents, bathed, that is, in its light, sitting by her Wyeth’s window, by her “beautiful river” in all its lights and beautiful changes—clear, placid under the sun, nicked with white when the wind picks up—the changing light of the region forces attention, and out of attention sometimes poetry is made.
Americans have always had a sense of place—in a globalizing world perhaps now more than ever before. For writers of the Mid-Atlantic, it is not that they are trying to render the region in writing, but what has been said of great books may be said here, too: its light a kind of marginal annotator on their lives and their work. The light and the readers of the light are appearing and disappearing acts both, and in a place where perishability is accepted, they are part of the public space, making poems that will not disappear.