by Miranda Pearson
Jaguar Rain: the Margaret Mee Poems
by Jan Conn
Post Your Opinion
by Linda Besner
In her author's note at the back of Jaguar Rain, Jan Conn celebrates Margaret Mee's "inspiring" sketchbooks and paintings, and singles out Mee's journals for their "valuable" influence on her poems. "She was a gifted observer and a fine writer," writes Conn, and "I hope these poems will contribute to rekindling an interest in her remarkable legacy." Here's the problem: in the set of poems that makes up Jaguar Rain, Margaret Mee is almost invisible.
In part, it's the way the poems are framed that arouses false expectations. Because the book introduces Mee as a character, the reader is set up to expect novelistic rewards: I wanted a story, and I wanted that story to tell me about the character Margaret Mee, the groundbreaking botanist and artist who struggled through the jungle looking for undiscovered species of orchids and bromeliads. Instead, Jaguar Rain is a vague travelogue with a shadowy narrator, low on event and high on description. It's a lush collection, with a tropical abundance of things and people crammed into every piece. Conn doesn't tend to devote entire poems to single items or ideas, but instead juxtaposes details with little in the way of explanation or transition. The poem "For the Giant Anteater" offers one of the more extreme examples of this:
Heat slaps our faces, a wet white sheet, under
the massive mango trees
I trade my gouache for the giant anteater, its
long viscous tongue
Pre-dawn, down a hundred wooden steps into
thick mist, hidden river
When scarlet ibis float across the molten greens,
suns also rise
We cross rapids: eyes wide open, swinging long
bamboo, poling by heart
You who fear spiders, invite them into your
Night spirits, Candomble, a cock dies¨coral snake
on my path today
Luscious pink and cream petals fall: the giddy
Inky clouds, threatening sky: how low in the
water our dugout
I cannot save the lemon trees from the woman
with the evil eye
In the igarape, euphonious bells of the lily
Mangrove roots, black mud, little crabs¨
boiled on board in a blackened pot
Ticks desert the band of skinny pigs: on us
grow fat as red balloons
What's conjured up is misty and intangible, an impressionistic collage of physical details linked by a vague sense of threat. It feels portentous, and many of the poems in this collection have a similar feel: they suggest, they imply, they beckon. Unfortunately, this risky tactic wears thin as one ominous poem gives way to another and nothing major materializes. The book seems caught in a perpetual Act I, in which the stage is elaborately set but nothing actually happens.
This kind of scene-setting is amplified by the substantial "Notes" section at the back. Conn is driving a hard bargain here; there is a sharp separation between the poems and the body of research that informs the poems, and the reader is expected to work hard to traverse the gap. Here is the note for "For the Giant Anteater":
Journey one. Candomble is an African cult in Brazil whose practices include ritual sacrifice of cocks for certain ceremonies. Field sketch of Gustavia augusta (family Lecythidaceae) by Mee (1956); flowers are large with prominent orange-yellow centres. This large tropical tree family includes the brazil nut and cannonball trees. The lily is actually not a true lily, but the flower Eucharis amazonica. An igarape is a small natural canal that may become dry seasonally.
It should be mentioned that Conn, as well as being a poet, is a research scientist and professor of biomedical sciences. Her professional research provides a solid foundation for her artistic pursuit of Margaret Mee. Strangely, however, these footnotes manage to provide a lot of information without actually performing a `Notes' section's usual function, in that they don't clarify precisely where the author has borrowed from another source. The relationship between Mee's journals and Conn's poems is ambiguous; when Conn's note says "Journey one", what exactly is it in the poem that Conn has lifted from Mee's journal entries? Should I gather that at some point the journal mentions going down a hundred steps, crossing rapids, seeing a snake, and getting ticks? What about phrases like, "I cannot save the lemon trees from the woman with the evil eye"? Because it's unclear how much of the detail is real and how much invented, I'm unsure of who I'm listening to, Mee or Conn. The result is that Jaguar Rain feels like it could be anyone's account of travels in the rainforest, and the specificity of Mee's contribution is lost.
Ironically, the most rewarding poems in Jaguar Rain have little to do with the mass of background detail that the reader has so painstakingly acquired. In the long poem titled "Biographies", Conn describes various species of orchids in plush language, as in the section "Heliconia adeleana":
Inside my half-translucent bracts I've a cargo
unlike any other: tangerine fire-crackers.
Within each one a minute belly-dancer
is already swaying provocatively to the deep green
music the little female flowers are composing
with their hot sulphur lips
Or "Scuticaria steelii":
The spotted canary-yellow flowers
open their jaguar mouths:
a glimpse of brick-red jaguar throat¨
the roar-box, the purr-box,
and those lovely ferocious teeth.
These poems crackle with the concentrated energy that comes from examining something rather than merely naming it. In each of these excerpts there's an unexpected figure invoked¨the belly-dancer, the jaguar¨and in both cases the dash of otherness, because it exists inside a solid context, has a healthy resistance to push against.
Miranda Pearson's Aviary, on the other hand, hits its highest point with the long poem "Silver Collection", which is the book's most intertextual and research-based piece. Originally composed to accompany an art exhibition, "Silver Collection" takes an archival list of silver items and arranges around it scenes of domestic life, accompanied by quotations from a number of classic literary works (Ulysses, The Tempest, Women in Love, to name a few). It's just elusive enough, ethereal and frowsty at the same time:
4-legged salt dish, Geo III, claw feet, good gauge, sturdy
My mother shakes her head as we drink gin and tonics
and watch the evening news together.
It's terrible, she says,
those poor creatures.
And the worst of it
is the landscape now¨so
empty, so barren...
She tosses cubes of floured cow into a frying pan, it
sizzles and shrinks.
A beautiful bit of beef that, Mrs. Pearson, silverside.
Here as elsewhere in Aviary, Pearson is highly concerned with the family, but "Silver Collection" is one of the only poems in which the reader actually meets familial figures and hears them speak for themselves. The short scenes ground the poem; lulled by the security of the surroundings, the reader is coaxed into the chains of association and the almost nursery rhyme feel of the broken up sections and half-phrases.
While "Silver Collection" succeeds, many of Pearson's other poems do not, and one of the reasons for this is that Pearson has a habit of making rather unsubtle, prosaic transitions from the external facts of a speaker's situation to the internal ones. A poem placed earlier in the collection which also engages the theme of family is called "Skating in the Dark", and the first two stanzas present an uncertain skater wobbling across the rink. From there, Pearson turns the poem into a contemplation of how an individual's life can feel accidental, accident-prone, and how their choices can seem arbitrary. She does this, however, with the clumsy transitional phrase, "I skate, and remember my mother".
There's a certain lazy earnestness to Pearson's work, an assumption that the reader will find the memories or emotions invoked meaningful because the author does. In yet another poem that touches upon the speaker's relationship with her mother, "The Fly", the final couplet assures us, "Believe me,/ I am trying to make sense of it." Pearson's penchant for Eastern philosophy doesn't help, since it leads her to ruin a perfectly good poem, "Mars", by following the mysterious and delectable lines, "The frosty lawn of Northern lights/ and the moon jealous, blood-orange too. It's the forest fires make it that way,/ earthly, you can smell them,/ and last night there were ashes in the pool./ What can it be to lose everything?" with the solemnly-intoned canned phrase, "Non-attachment,/ non-attachment." Pearson is most effective where she gives in to attachment and its frustrations, as in the tellingly titled "I Want You", and not when she tries to suppress those attachments and frustrations, as in the equally self-explanatory "Yoga Journals". On balance, I'd rather read about sex than a clear mind. ˛