My Life in Heaven
Just as there are not that many ways to feel truly satisfied, there are not that many serious subjects for poetry. (Sorry.) Leaving one companion and finding another are Mary Ann Samyn’s subjects in My Life in Heaven, and though she treats them so lightly it’s sometimes tricky to see them, the seriousness of the situations she describes comes through. While reading I felt at times, wished, that I was holding the prospectus for a less withholding, more Shakespearean analysis of a poet’s feelings of love and loneliness. This is not that book. The book it is is worth reading, with modest expectations.
Samyn has a practically Heian-era gift for restraint and understatement, and I nearly overlooked this book despite being an admirer of her work up to now. I think I noticed that I was reading something unusual when on page 18, I came to the line, “Sweetheart, the man is not lost.” This kind of tenderness is rare in contemporary poetry. I stopped there and went back to the beginning.
Samyn’s fifth book appears to be an account of a marriage ending and what comes after. I say appears because though the book is heavy on salient details—hands on bodies, bodies in mirrors, fears, prayers, signs—it is light on specifics. This slightly maddening aesthetic choice protects both the innocent (“The children drew chalk crucifixes, / two versions; please vote”) and the not-so-innocent (“And yeah, our separate back-thens were bad”). The speaker’s wary warmth keeps the vagueness from feeling unpleasant, while the vagueness keeps the reader from keeping score on anything other than the intense, guarded feeling in the poems.
It took me a while to catch onto the book not because the beginning is indifferent—the first poem is called “Let’s Be Serious Now” and its first line is “Men’s bodies are interesting.” It’s that the first few poems feel spoken into the void. In the second section the poems shift into second person, and the book catches fire:
It was a minor panic, thanks. It was a mirror
over the fireplace and I watched us.
It was the one a.m. train; I know because
I’m lonely. It was the usual awkwardness,
you claimed, though I’m not sure, really.
Rain in the air. And then, rain.
And snow back home; the map proves it.
Six a.m.: ok, if you want. We’ll walk
in the dark. Or, stay here, also in the dark.
(“In Answer to Your Burning Question”)
Poetry that uses fleeting references to sex to seduce the reader usually puts me off—I’m sure it’s a useful workshop strategy to catch the teacher’s attention and let classmates know whose experience is biggest—but this mirror, this walk (or not) in the dark and especially the awkward and lonely panic all feel real and hard-won to me in a way most writing about intimacy doesn’t. From “Burning Question” on, Samyn tries to get as close as possible to someone. To do that, she focuses on what she fears, how she relaxes, what she can and can’t control. To do that, she needs to write to someone.
And just for the record, I made it look effortless.
Behind the scenes was another story.
The photo of this moment would break your heart.
Don’t, not even for one minute, doubt that’s true.
(“You Got Your Wish; I Got Mine”)
The changes in tone from poem to poem gave me pause, particularly the harsh sadness in “You Got Your Wish”—is she always addressing the new lover? The Jean Valentine line “Write as though you’re writing to someone who understands everything” is an epigraph to a poem halfway through the book, and it does appear to be Samyn’s strategy. It got me thinking about writing for that ideal reader, the muse: is an automatically empathetic reader the ideal, or wouldn’t it be better to write to someone who doesn’t get it in advance, but wants to understand everything. In Samyn’s case, it’s certain her muse doesn’t understand everything and it’s not clear whether he has a clue to his ignorance. In “Bluebell Report,” she tries to let him know how his dithering affects her: “Yesterday you said tomorrow. Today you’re not so sure. ‘Only God can make a tree.’ / One report is, I’m crushed if you’re doubting. The other, there were no bluebells.” Pathos. Samyn spares the reader the more tedious kinds of ellipses, keeping her head level while falling.
Maybe just one more was my thought about kissing you while you slept.
Urgency is noisy, sometimes.
Little by little, the next day’s mood was inevitable as geese headed south.
Careful had been my other thought.
The story I caught myself telling myself was loud too, and total bullshit.
Thank God I realized.
I generally like the combination of urgency and plain speech, and when they’re combined with a realistic assessment of a situation, I’m sold. Samyn mentions “pressing record” and getting used to the sound of her voice, and it seems likely that many if not most of the poems in the book were dictated into a voice recorder. Urgency, however, is exhausting to sustain, and plain speech is always in danger of turning out to be ordinary prose. The passages I’ve quoted tend toward self awareness and limit setting, but the far greater part of the book is a reverie—walks by a lake, or an ocean beach, or paintings (in Florence, I think, since Botticelli’s Primavera has a cameo); nights in hotels; drives in the eastern Midwest, during most of which the speaker grapples with intermittent intimacy and feelings of excitement and longing. The structure saves the book from drowning in sameness—each seven-poem-or-so section covers a month or two in the ongoing story, which follows a not entirely predictable arc.
It feels like a spoiler to say where that arc leads, what more the speaker grapples with, but then how many books of poems require spoiler alerts? And more importantly, how does Samyn do it, keep the reader on her toes for the length of a ~90 page book of poems? The calm stretches between intense poems help, as does the possibility that she’s found something true— “allure doesn’t come along every day” she says in “Flesh and Language,” and “Is there only one great chance?” in “A Quiet Tomorrow.” Or maybe it’s the sense that something is at stake:
There is no safety; your heart may break. Mine may.
I think all art is about this.
Perfection never did much interest me, but I have to ask:
are you seeing this sunset?
(from “She Named It Beauty”)
If not anything like its equal in condensare, this is nevertheless one of the best answers I know to Pound’s “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter.”
My Life in Heaven is far from a flawless object. It’s a clean, slightly down report from a relationship in progress, reserved, more of an outline of miscommunications and mixed signals than a page-turning love story. It’s not salacious or superior. It’s difficult to see who outside of poetryland it might appeal to, and the frequent sincere mentions of Jesus and God—the “Heaven” in the title isn’t only West Virginia—will disorient many possible readers. The audience gets smaller still: there are lines straight out of pop psychology: “Running away now just means someone’s feelings got hurt back then.”
When I first realized what was going on in this book, though, it turned my head. I didn’t overlook the Foo Fighters epigraph, I looked the song up on Spotify. I did ignore the speaker referring to herself as a little girl, did turn a blind eye to the repeated mentions of taking selfies (she doesn’t use that word, thank goodness). After a while, my feelings for the book cooled. I noticed parts I didn’t care to reread. I decided there were other new books I like at least as much—Lee Ann Brown’s In the Laurels, Caught, for one. And then I went back to the beginning and started liking it all over again.