Angie Macri’s Underwater Panther, her first full-length book, is about her childhood home: Southwestern Illinois. But Macri isn’t the kind of poet to let nostalgia get in the way of a good poem. This is not easy reading about bucolic walks in pristine, rural settings; nor, on the other hand, does Macri indulge in Plathian rage and rebellion against the shortcomings of home and adolescence. Macri is not at all interested in the confessional mode or the Seinfeldian postmodern poetry of quotidian observation. Her poems dig deep into place, into history, into the competing cultures and political and economic forces that give shape to the places we inhabit. Her place is Southwestern Illinois, with towns whose names recall the ancient past—Thebes, Sparta, Cairo—and whose history is not immune from the darker forces at work beneath American life—the slave trade that worked up and down the Mississippi, the conquest of Native cultures, and the rape of nature. All of this lies buried beneath the consciousness of the inhabitants of rural Illinois, just as the deep history of the places we all inhabit lies buried beneath our feet, rarely evoked.
Macri’s muse is historical fact, and the notes at the back of her book show how she draws from many sources while bringing up the buried before our eyes: archaeological studies, online historical archives, letters from pioneers and aristocrats who populated the region in the nineteenth century, and even, in one case, a misleading historical monument recognizing Dred Scott. Through the depth of her research and the keen observations revealed in her lyricism, Macri’s poems do justice to the complexity and density of our experiences. And so this is not easy reading. Just a survey of the titles might scare off the trite-minded—“Arimipichia,” “Ismenian Dragon,” “Ourania, Pandemos, Apostrophia.” Some may object to these poems on the grounds that they're too difficult, that they require too much work for the reader—such as looking up the references for Greek terms like "Ourania," or Native American terms like "Arimpichia," or mining terms like "chert." But I believe that it's time more poets challenge us with their knowledge, bringing us up to their level of intensity and understanding, to help us appreciate their fine-tuned passion for the perfect word. I, for one, am tired of what is simple. I agree with Thomas Pynchon’s sentiment when he quipped, “Why should things be easy to understand?”
Part of the book’s difficulty is the specificity of the subject matter. Look at the opening of “Veins and Coal Fields”:
From the bottom of a bottle, from the shaft
of a knife, in the dark clef of the melodeon’s reeds,
they dig and haul Big Muddy coal from Jackson County.
Tamaroa coal runs to Chester on the rails
and then from Belleville to Carondelet.
The panther screams in the tooth’s shadow,
and the wing band on the hawk runs black as well.
Macri knows the mines. She can say, later in this poem, that “The Herrin coal seam stands six feet in places”; she can name the different types of mining techniques (“Strip, drift, slope, shaft, open pit, room and pillar, / longwall”); she can name the mines themselves (“Black Beauty, Crystal, Home Fire, Gracie, River King / five hundred hives yield a thousand pounds of honey”). All this is to say that Macri isn’t a pure lyricist depending only on the surface technique to woo you into her woven loom. She’s done the work of knowing. And so in this poem, as residents fish in the lake adjacent to the power plant with its “Nitrogen oxide and carbon dioxide, / turbines, crushers, grinders, feeders, cyclones, blowers, / fly ash piping [and] sulfur,” and as “some miners pocket pyrite suns / from the veins of shale and slate above the coal,” Macri can say, “We can burn to ash. We can pull it back / into the face of the sun. The dust washes off, / eventually, back into the soil with its old oiled smell.” She can say, at the very end, unabashedly, “We take our power, from strata, from Streamline, / from muscle with diesel, steam, and iron.” And she can say this because however much she may not like the rape of nature, however much she may see the problems of coal power plants (and we see them in this volume clearly), she is a realist. She knows that power and beauty go together. And so Macri does not preach platitudes; she is not a “political” poet, in the narrow sense of that term. She is too attuned to complexity to reduce the world of her poems to wishful thinking or to irrational invective.
And this is another reason her poems are difficult. Macri is not content to let her deftly described river delta scenes simply stand for ideas, disallowing any dissonance between reality and ideal. Which is to say that she’s an astute observer of nature, but she’s not a romanticist. One searches in vain underneath the lyricism for hymn-like concord and easy reassurance that everything, thanks to the imagination of the poet, now makes sense, all wrinkles smoothed out. Beneath the surface lies the panther, beneath the surface is discord. The only thing which brings harmony is the surface lyricism, the tonic of Macri’s objective voice telling the stories, relaying the intractable details of the region.
Take “The Bell at Kaskaskia” as an instance of Macri’s difficult density. The poem begins with thick detail of the trees, birds, and other features of the river bottom. The speaker has located us on an island in the Mississippi, where a bell has hung as an emblem at and old cemetery there. “It took every flood but the last, falling in ‘93” the speaker says, and gives details about the flood, taken from the Army Corps of Engineers report. Then the poems ends like this:
[. . .] From France where it
was cast in 1741, from its two years coming
upriver from New Orleans by rope and hand
on bateau, the bell stays. The wrens nest
in moss, bark, and snakeskin, in breakable clouds
and rampant chords.
She ends with a thought-wracking image, complex in its relation to this flood and this bell and this cemetery she’s described earlier. The wrens stay and nest as other birds leave for the winter. The bell has stayed, though now flightless, stuck to the bottoms after the devastating flood. The wrens nest in presumed safety, yet they use snakeskin for nesting material, which denotes the danger lurking around any bush. But they also nest in clouds and in chords, in the freedom and beauty of song and of movement—all that which the bell, in its crafted beauty and its song represented. This is not poetry used to illustrate ideas, not even beautiful ones. It is poetry that shatters you into meditation.
The rhythms are smooth without sing-song, and the poems abound in near rhymes and consonance, hints toward formal mastery that are always frustrated by the urgency of the material. A purely formal tone or voice wouldn’t fit, as it would render too malleable the intractable material underhand. Macri is particularly fond of the sonnet, and she sprinkles no less than seven of them throughout the volume. In keeping with the hushed formalism of the entire volume, the sonnets do not use traditional rhyme schemes or metrical patterns, although through near rhyme and through long strands of blank verse, the traditional sonnet conventions are intimated. “Ourania, Pandemos, Apostrophia” is perhaps the best of her sonnets. She begins, “These are the stories of the water’s ways, the Nile, / the Mississippi, and of more than one town that holds / the same name, Thebes, filling the footprints of myths / and geology.” The ancient is never far from the present in Macri’s vision, and so the poem continues to muse on the marshes and river canes as well as the trains that run through them so that “the town decays in vibrations of timber and stone.” Her love for the region, evident throughout the volume, coupled with her knowledge of all that has happened, good and evil, to make it what it is, is poignantly stated at the end of the poem:
[. . . ] And I know this place in Illinois was
named for Egypt, but what the muses said at the wedding
at Thebes in Greece holds true: what is beautiful is loved, what
is not beautiful is not loved—the slaves sold down the river,
the effortless glide of snakes, how they hear movement
with the muscles and bones of their lower jaw.
The final metaphor is beautifully chilling, and it represents Macri at her best in this volume.
But just what is an underwater panther? Angie Macri never gives a straightforward description. Arimipichia, the name of one of her poems, is a Native American term for a dragon-like chimera, often called by the Natives the “true tiger,” that was said to lurk at the bottom of large bodies of water, ready to sneak up and take down the unsuspecting. Macri’s panthers come to the surface in a variety of forms. In “Black Code” the “underwater panthers drawn on the rocks” near Shawneetown are linked to the various dark-skinned cultures that have been buried underneath the soil and underneath the consciousness of this rural farming region. In other poems, real-life panthers are spotted, but though they are always treated as mere speculations by official reports, Macri’s speaker says, “tracks in mud don’t lie.” These panthers may stand, I think, for the beauty, power, and fragility of the always threatened ecosystems of the region. And then there is the black panther that “screams in the tooth’s shadow”—the tooth, that is, of the mining shovel. These panthers are the black, buried beauties full of terror and power, represented in the oil and coal men have sought underneath the rich soil. Dark, liquid oil, black burning coal—powering all our lives, yet buried, out of sight. Valuable gems, these panthers elude all but the most determined, the most cruel. Men build massive steam shovels, draglines, underground lairs, systems of tunnels, pulleys, levers, pipes—all to capture the power of the black beast. Macri shows us all this—the greed, the cruelty, the lust. It’s all there, but it’s not all there is. Brute, cruel power is not all that has survived. The beauty of the panther still flashes in wrens, thrushes, woods and streams, little girls who imagine love, their fathers who leave the surface to bury themselves all for their daughters’ sakes. The panther is beauty, the panther is power, the panther is yet cruelty, and it is also elusive, buried beneath layers of our daily meanings, our daily lives, our official histories.
Underwater Panther is for those readers who want to get buried and come up live.
N. S. BOONE is an associate professor of English at Harding University, where he teaches general education and American literature courses. His specialty is American poetry, and his publications include articles on Poe, Hawthorne, Twain, Rita Dove, and Mark Strand.
Underwater Panther, by Angie Macri Southeast Missouri State University Press, 2013
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