Saturday, January 15, 2022

Myrna Stone, The Resurrectionist’s Diary. (Dos Madres Press)

Myrna Stone, The Resurrectionist’s Diary. Dos Madres Press. 2021. 86pp. $17.00


A coffin quilt decks the cover of Myrna Stone’s most recent book, The Resurrectionist’s Diary. Such quilts, often handed down from generation to generation, depict coffins, some filled and labeled, others awaiting the still-living and not-yet-born. It’s an apt image for a book that digs up the dead in various ways, most obviously by giving voice to forgotten women from previous centuries.

Stone, the author of five previous books, writes formal poems with a weirdly archaic yet vivid immediacy. The first section in particular struck me as uncanny in its power. Six poems, titled by their dates, are spoken by the wife of a “resurrectionist”: someone who digs up corpses and sells them, generally to medical professionals. Amid occasionally grotesque details, the speaker maintains her practical, thoughtful, observant tone:

Yesterday, half past the darkling hour, we took

from pauper’s corner in the South End Burying Ground

a woman’s freshly interred body, her face a book

writ large in pain, and her two infant daughters

laid upon her breast, their torsos joined at the sternum,

each malformed and monstrous.

I haven’t seen the word “darkling” since I last read Thomas Hardy and Matthew Arnold, but how right it sounds here, in a poem headed “Wednesday, 17 March, 1830.” The speaker has two boys and a baby on the way. Her life is defined by their shared labor and love, the meagre food, the weather. “Our work/is not without risk,” she notes, “though we take only the dead, never/their goods, never their souls.”

She and her husband do what they must to get by in nineteenth-century Boston. The climax is the death of their horse Belle: “What sour/Fate dictates such privation?” Unlike the humans, who seem troubled by the questionable morality of their work, “Belle was good—/a sweetness, a clearness—and come what may/we cannot replace her.” The reader is left wondering how they will live, though in the short term their needs are met: “John tells me the ice/is fast and the weather holds, so her flesh will keep./Therefore, even in death she will nourish us.” That final line says everything about the speaker’s cold, dark, hungry world.

The wife’s monologs are written in rhyming tercets that evoke Dante’s terza rima, and indeed this first section resembles a journey through the land of the dead. Enjambment and off-rhymes keep the formal constraints unobtrusive, the speaker’s voice spontaneous, genuine.

Stone herself, of course, is also a resurrectionist. The brief section that follows, “Each of the Dead,” unearths (among others) the wives of Raphael and Edgar Alan Poe, whose stories are told in quatrains; the third section, “Excerpts from Catharina Vermeer’s Daybook,” gives voice to the artist’s wife through a series of twenty-one sonnets. The book as a whole asks to think about the relevance of past to present: what’s worth digging up? Stone’s use of traditional forms—versions of terza rima, ballad, and Shakespearean sonnet—as well as her occasionally archaic diction lend dignity and distance to her subjects. There’s no sign here of the “American sonnet”—exemplified by Wanda Coleman and Terence Hayes—with its irreverent talking back to the form’s history and constraints. I think of Coleman’s “American Sonnet: 91,” for example, in which the sonnet is an angel, her foot lamed by the slamming of heaven’s gate, a “mystic gone ballistic” with “no choice but/to learn to boogaloo.”

No one boogaloos in these poems. But there is a lavish delight in words—their sounds, connotations, the way they emerge from the past with all their redolence intact. Stone’s poems about painters’ wives celebrate the “perpetual now of the painting’s moment” in which Raphael’s Margherita “breathes still, her spirit abrim/with familial affection, soulful and potent.”

Stone’s words are equally “abrim,” as when Catharina Vermeer’s heart is stirred “within the cincture/of my linen stays.” In telling of her son’s death, Catharina says, in the sonnet’s final couplet, “Nightly I pray that his soul may forever abide/with our lost others, and in their grace, happify.”

Dated 1674 to 1675, Catharina’s entries capture moments within a narrative: Vermeer paints; her brother behaves badly; a child dies; they struggle to pay debts; and then, disastrously, Vermeer dies. The sequence depicts the family’s daily life convincingly. At its conclusion, Catharina mourns her dead husband, “our lives as drear/without him as the graven light that suffuses/the leaded panes of glass inside my chamber/window.” She, too, is a resurrectionist as she remembers, in this section’s final lines:

his fingers tinctured in tints of weld and azurite,

his scent ripe and unsweetened, his head

lolling against my shoulder as he erupts

in laughter only the rush of love can disrupt.

The book’s final section, “Across the Void,” also consists of sonnets: five poems thinking back on the speaker’s past. That “void” we’re asked to bridge resonates in many ways: the gap between past and present, between dead and living, between self and other. Steeped in the antiquarian feel of previous sections, I found myself reading these final poems as if they were spoken by some long-dead woman shaped by another place and time. Only to find myself in the present, listening to a speaker reminisce about her mother, her brother, her childhood molester. Perhaps that is the point: our contemporaries are, in their way, as distant from us as these historical figures—equally bound by constraints we know little about, and equally deserving of our attention and generosity. “Mercy,” the speaker tells her ne’er-do-well brother, “has no expiration.”

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