Thursday, September 10, 2015

It Will Happen Like This poems by Mary Ann Honaker

Mary Ann Honaker

It Will Happen Like This
poems by Mary Ann Honaker
Salem, Mass.: YesNo Press, 2015, $10

Mary Ann Honaker’s chapbook, It Will Happen Like This, consists of fifteen poems, each with the same title and same first lines. The title is “She’ll Fall in Love,” and first lines are:

It will happen like this: one day,
she’ll fall in love with a painting.

Starting from this common center, the set radiates into a corona, an unusual (perhaps unique?) intersection of theme-and-variations form and ekphrasis. Most of the poems take their starting points from actual paintings, with a few imagined: although some of the painters are named in the Author’s Note at the end, some are unknown to her, and none are identified in the poems themselves. Without the possibility of external references or accompanying illustrations, the reader must rely on the poem entirely to make visualization possible. Fortunately, thanks to Ms. Honaker’s vivid descriptions, this is far from difficult.

After their identical openings, the poems all follow a general pattern. A description of the painting is followed by speculations about the painting’s impact on the unspecified “she.” But it’s within this general pattern that the set’s many subtle variations play out, variations that become increasingly involving as the reader moves through the chapbook.

Given the future tense of the poems’ opening lines, most of the descriptions are in the same tense, as for example:

The painting will be of koi in a pond,
seen from above, cees and esses
of orange-gold and cloud-white. (19)

The surety of these descriptions - what each painting “she” encounters will be, foreseen with certainty by the speaker - become less so later in the volume. On p. 21, “The painting could be pines in fog, / fog as thick as salt dissolving in a glass of water … Beyond this, this hint of pines, of fir, / of ever-green, of some vaguely triangular thing pulled taffy-like / heavenward.” Still later, the pattern is broken: “The painting won’t be a painting at all: / instead, light captured by lens and stretched and bent , luminosity layered // on darkness like campfires, like stars.” (25) And in the penultimate poem, after “she” is captured by one painting, a second portrait by the same artist comes into view, complicating both the description, her response, and its consequences for us.

The love of “she” for these paintings plays out in multiple dimensions. They are so various, actually, that the initial idea of a unitary “she” in this set is undermined as the poems unfold. We seem to know less about who “she” is as we read along. The personal impacts of these paintings are often humorous, but never simple.  In one instance, “she” falls in love with a painting of a man switching on the light bulb, the same image recurring ad infinitum like nesting dolls inside the man’s skull. Initially,

The girl likes
that it’s about thinking. She likes
to look like a girl who thinks,

so she hangs it in the foyer. (9)

But this initial impression of “she” as a kind of airhead is complicated as Honaker digs deeper into her need:

When she sits
in the café behind her thick lenses

over esssss-presso correctly pronounced,
she etches herself so seriously. She nods
when appropriate. Inside her mind, the canvas
is blank. Her terror has no sound, no color. (9-10)

In the poem beginning on page 13, the painting’s associations play out in layers of both her experience and non-experience. Its garishly colored images are “busy with cartoon grimaces, / impossible chimeras with / faces blooming from backs, /the wrong number of legs, / tails re-attached to the body / like cuphandles”. There are deft echoes with urban experience, for example life in a “basement apartment / and only legs pass by, you’re on / your first floor and now it’s torsos, / heads.” But the painting, once lived with, could unsettle its own familiarity:

What would she think if she sat too long?

After going through her to-do list,
planning her events to attend, what then?
Is there anything underneath those manufactured
colors? What about the flat black canvas

beneath? Is there really only
blank black canvas beneath?

Of the countless works of classical music written in the theme and variations form, the most accessible but least memorable are those in which the variations typically provide melodic filigree, perhaps with changes in tempo and one variation predictably in a minor key if the theme is in the major. These works demonstrate the possibility of variation, but don’t take it to any depth: they eventually become wallpaper. By contrast, works like Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations and the Variations on a Theme by Haydn attributed to Brahms don’t rest satisfied with ornamented restatements. They tease out a theme’s subtle elements, extending and reworking them to arrive at fresh, unexpected destinations. Grandiose comparisons! Not meant to embarrass or to put off (if you dislike classical music), but simply to say that Mary Ann Honaker works the variations form skillfully and with subtlety.

To mention only one other example: in the penultimate poem, “she” first sees a portrait “of a man / in a blue pinstripe suit, / with impossible corn silk hair // obscuring his face as he plays violin” (29). The violinist’s “entranced” expression is matched by a second painting “that takes her heart too: // a smiling fat man with accordion, / his back to her, to the painter” :

His mouth is open; perhaps

he sings to the lopsided shops he’s facing,
atilt as if dancing, perspective gone all
diagonal. Perhaps he’s singing to the birds,
vees of darkness arcing over the roof.

The obscurity of these unknown but absorbed musicians leads “she” to think of Sappho, “ungodly famous, / but famous how?” In her own time, Sappho’s audience was small, but perhaps sufficient. In our time, our reflex is to disparage the small: “we want / a whole nation at least, a grand realm: // a landmass many times larger than Sappho’s / whole world, and far more full of faces.” But the painter and the men in the paintings have no need of any of this, and as “she” – now perhaps the speaker herself – reflects:

She knows that right now, reading her words
to her few, she is as famous as Sappho
ever was in her short life. As famous
as the violinist and accordionist  who have

no names, and isn’t that enough? (30-31)

As a person with a life-long commitment to the strength of the local, I’m grateful for this poem. And glad for this attractively designed chapbook and its many surprises. Thanks to YesNo Press and Mary Ann Honaker for this work which, of course, deserves readers beyond the local as well as within it.

David P. Miller’s chapbook, The Afterimages, was published in 2014 by Červená Barva Press. His poems have appeared in Meat for Tea, Ibbetson Street, Painters and Poets, Fox Chase Review, Wilderness House Literary Review, Autumn Sky Poetry Daily, Oddball Magazine, Incessant Pipe, Muddy River Poetry Review, two Bagel Bards Anthologies, and Stone Soup Presents Fresh Broth, among others.  His poem “Kneeling Woman and Dog” is included in the 2015 edition of Best Indie Lit New England. His three “micro-chapbooks” are available at no charge from the Origami Poems Project website. He was a member of the multidisciplinary Mobius Artists Group of Boston for 25 years, and is a librarian at Curry College in Milton, Mass.

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