A (short) history of l.
by rob mclennan
Perfect Bound, 95 pages
Reviewed by PQ Contributing Editor Elizabeth Kate Switaj
T.S. Eliot’s observation that “genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood” has become something of a critical cliché. Nonetheless, rob mclennan’s A (short) history of l., a collection ghazal-based poems in three sections or sequences, brings this idea to the fore and transforms it. These poems communicate not only before they are completely understood but also, in large part, because they cannot fully be understood. Moreover, through a marked intertextuality, they make clear that such communication is not unique to this collection.
The title of the collection frames the whole work with uncertainty. What precisely is “l”? A proliferation of poems titled “a (short) history of l.” or “another (short) history of l.” suggest the impossibility of answering this question once and for all. The opening line of the first poem that shares its title with the book suggests lyric poetry: “I am interested in how lyricism / bonds itself to our molecules.” On the other hand, the opening of the first “another (short) history of l.” gives us “limitation.” The two poems also entitled “another (short) history of l.” that follow from there contain no “l” words, but the way the speaker addresses the “you” would seem to suggest “love”:
I am the cold climate warmed
on your Mediterranean.
I am homesick today
for wherever you are.
That “wherever” indicates another uncertainty in these pieces. Just who is this beloved, where and who is the “you”? What kind of lover has the ability to have “held out your eyes, / between thumb & sliver, forefinger”? Or “bleed ancient cities & Sanskrit, / razor scar on your leg”? The poems communicate the nature of the relationship between the “I” and the “you” not before we can understand who “you” are but precisely because we cannot understand who this person is. Only love lets one see the remnants of civilizations in the remnants of a shaving mishap; the reader, outside this love, cannot see beloved so much as the poet’s feelings for the beloved.
Even if we know that much about the relationship between “I” and “you,” the “l” still remains unresolvable. The letter stands for the lyricism of these poems, for the love of the “I” for the you, for the limits of both love and the lyric, and for any number of l-words a reader may find between the covers of the collection. The “l” is all these things and less, as it is, literally, merely a letter. If the letter could be reduced to a single concept, though the title could then be understood, it would no longer communicate. This collection is not a history of love or limits or the lyric poem but, rather, a (short) history that includes all those ideas while being, like the letter itself, smaller than they are.
This need to be just beyond understanding in order to communicate becomes a commentary on poetry in general, rather than merely a characteristic of the collection, because these poems constantly comment on poetry in general and on their own relationships with other poets’ work. Remarks on poems appear throughout the first sequence, which shares its title with that of the collection. The very first poem, “if you are almond I am almond too” (which never even begins to explain what being almond would mean) opens with the couplet: “thirteen ways of describing anything has become the archetype / for the worst kind of poem.” Later, in “the fallacy of prose,” we get “in a poem the moon / always means something more”—the something being the impossible-to-understand meaning that poetry communicates and without which “the church at the top of the hill [is] / just a building.” Further along, “blindness” opens with “if you were to write a poem on blindness, / how would it look.” It takes the form of a question, but the full-stop turns it into a statement and, in doing so, suggests that, like so many of the questions raised in this collection, it cannot be answered adequately; this is a limit to the poetic form.
The middle section of the book, “if I am being dismantled,” does more to emphasize intertextuality. Like the other two parts, it begins with epigrams from other poets. Unlike them, it opens with poems that state their relationship with the work of the poets thus named. Thus, the first three poems are: “how it is I am not married / (after Paige Ackerson-Kiely,” “what paper eats away / (after Nina Berkhout,” and “I want to sleep in the runcible spoon / (after Michael Redhill.” Each of these titles is repeated several times throughout this second section. These poems can be read as interwoven sequences, with the reappearing titles marking distinct threads or as discrete pieces—an ambiguity made possible by the rapid leaps between images and ideas which characterize mclennan’s style. No matter which way they are read, however, the repetition of “after” emphasizes that this collection is in many ways about its relationships with other poems and so about poetry in general.
The final sequence of the book “a short history of electrical fields” suggests another alternative meaning for the “l” of the books title, since the first morpheme of “electrical” is pronounced like the name of the letter. Here, too, the examination given to poetry in general in the first two sections seems to turn inward, with all but two poems containing the phrase “short history” (with or without parentheses around “short”). These are very short histories: twelve lines on the electric car, eighteen on the digital camera. The latter comments on itself in the end: “a luxury of narrative discord.” The histories bring in the “you” and the “I” far more often than a prose history would. They play with the idea of what it means to be a history, and so become both the most inward-looking and most outward-looking part of the book.
The difference between navel-gazing and looking out at the universe implodes, and we are left with the final lines: “what this afterlife implies / , all the time in the world” which is, indeed, what remains at the end of any book.
A (short) history of l. is a book of love poems and a book about (lyric) poetry. It is a book with limits that are stretched to their fullest where ambiguity and uncertainty makes those limits difficult to place. In making communication without full understanding a major theme of this work, mclennan comments not only on poetry but also, perhaps, on the nature of all human communication. To speak or to write is, after all, only necessary where understanding does not exist. Two people, even lovers, cannot understand each other entirely, but that is something to celebrate since it creates the space in which communication happens and in which poems are made.
Elizabeth Kate Switaj’s first poetry collection, Magdalene & the Mermaids, was published in 2009 by Paper Kite Press. She has also published a chapbook, The Broken Sanctuary: Nature Poems, with Ypolita Press. She is the Assistant Managing Editor of Irish Pages and a doctoral candidate at Queen’s University Belfast. Her website is www.elizabethkateswitaj.net.