CUTBANK REVIEWS: "Mirror Inside Coffin" by Maureen Alsop

Mirror Inside Coffin by Maureen Alsop

Reviewed by Christina Cook

Maureen Alsop’s 2009 chapbook, the dream and the dream you spoke, suggests that our dreams may be more “real” than our lived experiences. Her latest book, Mirror Inside Coffin, takes this assertion one step further by asking if our experiences, lived or dreamed, are “real”— or merely reflections in the mirror of death.  

This line of questioning revisits territory travelled by Eastern and Western philosophers for centuries, but the advantage poetry has over philosophy is its absolute freedom from theory and logic—a freedom Alsop takes full advantage of. The only thing she anchors herself to is language: a medium as pliable in her hands as the quill that pens it or the tongue that lilts its lines. Moreover, Alsop’s poetry makes no universal claims about the comparative realities of human experience, but rather conveys the sentience of a single speaker which her readers can relate to through their own experiences.

 Mirror Inside Coffin opens with a poem titled “Approbation,” signaling the speaker’s acceptance of death from the outset—and if death is indeed as lush, sensuous, and quietly alive as this poem suggests, I for one will certainly dread it less:

I hear the rain’s footsteps lay waste
In the grass crashing over. I am an old knife softening. I am oars of ghost
Ships wherein the sea swells its salt in me. Shores
Splinter with the depth of the no-more-world. Only pages past
Flip past. Owlstripes in the linden leaves; quills
Sanctioned to the places the body abandoned.

These lines are redolent with a slant sort of synthesesia, a blending of sensations which morph into the written word. The coffin, a swelling of splintered wood sunk under the rain and grass, is depicted as a place where the words of the past return—or are generated. Here, quills inscribe the body with the language of death, which is, perhaps, the very language of life.

As those familiar with Alsop’s previous books know, this isn’t her first time playing Virgil to our Dante. Her talents in this role emerged as early as her debut book, Apparition Wren. In Stephany Prodromides’ review of it, she likens the speakers to birds that “trace a semi-conscious lyric territory ‘as if circling / guides like a compass to what matters’” (Poetry International, 13/14). Alsop’s speakers are, from her first book to this her most recent, intensely lyrical, otherworldly, and wise: characteristics maximized by her highly-calibrated prosody.

Her poem “Eminent” employs this pairing of fine-tuned technique and rich speaking voice to develop the theme, suggesting that a mirror placed inside of a coffin will reflect not an image of the corpse, but rather the language of the living body:

I have loved the release heard
within each phrase of the body, immaterial, oracular 

I would not fault you
your fears. 

Even now, unevenly I grope the mirror; what told
the mirror tells spirit.

The mirror’s reflection is audible (an act of telling and being told) rather than visible (an act of seeing and being seen). In a brilliant manipulation of words, Alsop completes this reversal by making the words “Even now, unevenly” mirror each other audibly, with the comma functioning as the mirror. Significantly, this “mirror” is slightly imperfect: as a heard utterance, “even now” and “unevenly” are not exact opposites because of the final “ly.” This slight imperfection—of language, meaning, music—is what gives the poems throughout the book an unfiltered quality, and is what makes Alsop’s speaker so whole and vulnerable, in other words, so human.

The use of white space enhances this vulnerability. The couplet “I would not fault you/your fears” and its silent buffer of white space in fact separates two longer stanzas, effectively slowing the poem down to a thin air her speaker could vanish right into: a liminal space blurring any finite distinction between life and death, language and silence. The inevitability of vanishing into such a space stretches throughout the book, and the speaker’s awareness of it blooms from vague feelings into concrete images. In no other poem is this more evident than in “Taromancy”:

The taste of iron in the throat. Someone else startled me toward
a dry noose along the little draughts of the tightening fields. But when
I looked up there was only a train & a boy standing on the distant tracks
in a burnt valley. Somewhere in me your wisdom began waving its arms.
But there were too many textures, all those years, shuffling back over the ground. 

The concreteness of these images convey a physical reality that much of the book dodges, suggesting that if “reality” does, indeed, exist, it is in this liminal space. Juxtaposed to this concrete sense of a “real” human experience is the speaker’s simultaneous breaking the boundaries of being human: “Taromancy” is, as the poem’s epigraph tells us, “divination through the use of tarot cards.” Many of Alsop’s poems, in this as well as her last book, Mantic, are divination poems, which transform the speaker into a seer. Like the bodies of birds, the minds of seers occupy a space between heaven and earth; between what can be touched, seen, understood, and what can’t; between the limited and limitless.  

Birds interact with uttered language throughout the book, continually reminding the reader of his or her existence in this liminal space—both as a reader of the poems and as a person in the world. “Cephalomancy in Which ‘You’ve Devoured the Source Codes for Thousands of Species in Your Lifetime’” offers a particularly sonorous example: “In the seven bells of my voice, verbs call out a hundred times / giving faint hold upon the bolt of geese. There are strange theories / of speech.”

Among these “strange theories” is an (ironically) unspoken one: speech is the mirror that reflects death to the living and life to the dead. In “Star Diagram,” this unity is actually revealed to be a trinity: because of life’s connection to death, speech is bonded to both.

Once you said

you were held by the gaze
of a lion. Perhaps

it was the body’s naming, a deciduous language,
sycamore’s mane of blanched apostrophes, primary’s
irreparable manners of ochre, gold, vermillion.     

Much like a mirror’s gaze, the lion’s gaze is a visual exchange that the speaker sees as “deciduous language,” in other words, in a constant state of flux between living and dying. Like the sycamore’s autumnal brilliance, this state of being is perhaps its most majestic quality—illustrating that death is no more final than life is infinite—a conundrum resolved even more, for those of the Christian faith, by the Christ symbol of the lion. And what is more, the sycamore’s distinction as one of the oldest species of trees on earth, a paragon of longevity and hardiness, gives added credence to the speaker’s belief. 

This belief is reflected again in the image of an interred man in “A Blurred Photograph of the Sunlight,” which exudes a oneness with earth and sky that clearly exceeds the physical limitations of a coffin:                                                  

Now, sparrows   

flit through his ribs. He looks out
over the cut grass beyond the dirt road. He is nowhere 

near these trees
nor your faint reflection, continuance
or sunlight. You are not
enough. His voice streams in the boundaries
of waking which cannot be dreamed.

The man mirrored in his coffin has an abiding kind of consciousness that engages in an eternal act of looking: a life-death amalgamation that defies being dreamed up and does not enter the discourse of those who are awake. He is “nowhere,” in a no-man’s land that can only be experienced as language—a land we are lucky enough to be led through by Alsop’s capable hand, her lyrics impelling us forward.

The poem is reminiscent of French poet Marie Claire Bancquart’s poem “Icare,” where Icarus, having fallen out of the sky, “opens his eyes over the red earth,” preparing his reappearance “in the English rose” many years later. Like “Icare,” “A Blurred Photograph of the Sunlight,” is strange and mythic, yet firmly grounded in earthen-bound images.

This and the other figures buried throughout the book see life when they look in the coffin mirror—a life reflected back to them through the medium of language. So are our experiences, whether lived or dreamed, “real” or are they merely reflections in the mirror of death?

And can our active living of it be distinguished from our reflective viewing of it? Wise guide that she is, Alsop gives no answers—only a rich reading experience that can help us question our way to an eventual answer.



About the Author:
Maureen Alsop, Ph.D. is the author of several full collections of poetry including Apparition Wren, Mantic (Augury Books, 2013), and Later, Knives and Trees (Negative Capability Press, 2014), as well as four chapbooks. She is the winner of Harpur Palate's Milton Kessler Memorial Prize for Poetry, The Bitter Oleander's Frances Locke Memorial Poetry Award, and other prizes. Her poems have appeared in various journals, including Cortland Review, Blackbird, The Laurel Review, AGNI, Tampa Review, Handsome, Barrow Street, Many Mountains Moving, Arsenic Lobster, Typo, and Kenyon Review.

About the Reviewer:
Christina Cook is the author of Lake Effect (Finishing Line Press) which won the 2012 Jean Pedrick Chapbook Prize, and A Strange Insomnia, forthcoming from Kelsay Books. Her poems, translations, essays, and book reviews have appeared in numerous journals, including Prairie Schooner, New Ohio Review, Crab Orchard Review, and Hayden’s Ferry Review. Christina works as a writer at the University of Pennsylvania’s Office of Communications.