by Maureen Alsop
Augury Books, 68 pages
reviewed by Matthew Girolami
This is a book of annotations, a bibliography of divination. Like any bibliography, Maureen Alsop’s Mantic is carefully researched and curated. The collection’s title, Mantic, and periodic poems within the collection, are defined by the art of divining and the many ways to do so—“Gyromancy,” “Ouranomancy,” and “Ornithomancy” to name a few—but this is not an instruction manual: Alsop lays these terms bare and explicates them through human moments in verse.
As the “-mancy” titles suggest, Mantic is as a much a lexical read (or listen—read aloud) as it is an exploration of reaction; Mantic is beautiful for its teaching verse and for its honesty: with poem after poem inspired by divining, Alsop points to the many ways humanity has attempted to shape the world in its favor, whether that favor comes from desire or fear. As a result, the poems shift from their theses and speak less of divining and prediction than what innately drives these practices and, ultimately, humanity.
Alsop’s poetry speaks to the sensory, material limitations of these human wishes and concerns. I urge one to read aloud because Mantic feverishly uses sound to mime the physical and spiritual states discussed: pushing the limits of speech as divining pushes the limits of the material world. With each -mancy poem, Alsop uses diction and its clanging or cooing to mimic the material manifestations of the particular divining practice; that is, as divining attempts to use the material world to transcend the material, so does Alsop’s poetry, which often uses images and tangibles to illustrate humanity’s spiritual limitations—both how high and how low our ceiling is. Mantic begins with “Gyromancy,” which is noted as “divination by walking around a circle of letters until dizzy you fall down on the letters or in the direction to take”; following is the blueprint for the rest of the collection, with patterns such as,
So you go wither. So muscled in foxglove….So a camera’s song leans
over the guardrail. So the graffiti of circles. So lexicon is devoured by chalk
in the grasslands.
This pattern continues throughout the poem with each following fragment as startling as the one before. This passage offers a glimpse into the rest of the collection: that these poems lead the reader not always through narration but rather emotional and sensory resonance alone. At times, Mantic assaults the reader with imagery and angular syntax; however, these are necessary attacks, and not a slight to the writing. Such poetic attacks (and strokes—this is also a healing text) force the reader to explore either unfamiliar or unwelcome experiences, such as loss of love and life, and spiritual and existential crises.
And these are necessary depths to explore. In a culture that refuses sadness and encourages pleasure to an unsustainable and distracting excess, Mantic insists we dive into panic, which, in a sense, divining reacts to. Alsop’s language is as much about seeking direction as divination is. Much like divining’s spiritual use of objects, Alsop often lets psychogeography lead her work, and familiar places, like the physical home-space, take on an emotional and at times surreal form; take “Alphitomancy”:
broke its hold. I sat at the table
in the room you last stood. Night tilted the kitchen, thus the future
of my tiny self fell between the horizon’s two-story brightness.
For anyone who has lost someone, this passage’s use of the kitchen, the house, resonates. This surreal “tilted” house image speaks to the trauma of grief, as a mourner’s physical reality and presence is altered after losing someone. Alsop uses surreal imagery throughout Mantic to remark on loss in this way many times, though these poems are less elegy and more grieving. I say they are grieving because Alsop’s language and imagery command an authority that either distort reality or demand that reality is distorted, much like a grieving mind; her work transcends metaphor and insists on the psychic world’s effect on the material world.
While not always explicitly of death, such imagery speaks to the greater loss—or distance—humans feel from something spiritually indefinable and untouchable. Mantic’s surreal nature articulates this distance through imagery that is near and yet far from familiar experience. With the use of divining as a recurring motif, one learns the physical dimensions and limitations of divining, thus humanity’s distance (or closeness) to the divine as defined by what we are certain of: our material state. In Mantic’s final poem, “Frost Altar,” Alsop culminates a collection of exploration and wonder with:
at equinox, covenants arrived knowing the old question. But for the whole
of that one century a single crane’s speculation yellowed me.
Following these large and mystical images is one of Alsop with a loved one in a hospice room. Here, both the divine and the worldly share the same page and there is still cause for divining, as proven by an entire collection of divining poems that have come before this.
Cleaver Poetry Reviews Editor Matthew Girolami is a poet from New Jersey. His work appears in the Susquehanna Review. He is a graduate of Franklin & Marshall College, where he was Arts & Entertainment Editor of The College Reporter.