Prologue to Mariamne
2012 - Citizens for Decent Literature Chapbook Series
Review by Paul Corman-Roberts
Lynn Alexander's poetry has a brutal way of assessing the world from the outside in. In her most recent collection, Prologue for Mariamne (Citizens for Decent Literature, 2012) her stripped down narrative functions as a weary, battered spaceship recording every detail of an equally damaged planet as it plunges through a biosphere rotten with overstimulation and politically driven spectacle. A tour through her poem titles in this collection reveals the following sequence: "The Atmosphere is Skewed"; "The Hemisphere, Descending"; "We Are As Algae"; "The Age of Drowning"; "To The Singularity, Wane" and "All, Owing to the Shiva Fold."
These aren't all the poems in the collection, but the order follows a descent into humanness, for all its travails, and finds the desolation in that state to be a universal constant. This is not to say the collection is a "bummer"; though it is no ray of sunshine either, as the opening salvo sets the table for what is to come:
"Tonight we are with the fire. Finite. The Atmosphere is skewed. Here we flicker to extinguish We are shifting We are rendered as the Shadows"
- From "The Atmosphere Is Skewed"
The cyclical spectacle that plays out in this chap chronologically begins where our narrative spaceship meets "civilization" smack dab in Herod's Judea (as many Western dialectics do.) Herod's second wife Mariamne is caught between the political intrigues required to save her own life while watching her family slaughtered by her husband's maneuverings over the years. Mariamne (the root name of today's "Merriam" and "Marianne")* is trapped by her circumstances, as a pawn in various power plays from Herod's court and family and of course by Herod himself. By openly speaking truth to power, she is able to leverage her position in the king's court by mocking those pretenders to power, who inevitably turn out to be her betrayers. She surrenders her privilege, and eventually her life, for this act of dignity. It is said she died in calm silence, while her rivals, including her own mother, excoriated her on her way to execution. *
The middle section of the Prologue to Mariamne explores this intrigue in the title poem and its following pieces, "The Age of Drowning" and "Things Like Rage." What Alexander does that is so profound is to tie the meanings of those poems to what is surely the centerpiece of the collection, the near epic and heartbreaking "Fingers Growing Furious" which unflinchingly depicts a woman being burned alive. While the poem's movement is absolutely literal, it also serves to symbolize the fate, but also the revenge, of every mother, privileged or otherwise, who ever dared to speak out against the injustice done to their families by the machinations of corruption that rule through fear:
"Silent in the dampers they sat back and watched her fingers growing furious If she squatted now only black would smack the floor Met in that last transcendent mastery, the true last tension of the muscle clinging to bone layers their compressing acts the black to vanishing Soon her dust was in their rugs." - Fingers Growing FuriousThis poem, in effect, links Queen Mariamne to our modernist sensibilities about using truth as a weapon. Mariamne is very much in the dialectic of Joan of Arc, the so called "witches" of Salem, Artaud's Theater of Cruelty, or even say Sandra Fluke who dared to speak out against hypocrisy and political agenda, only to be then cast as a hypocrite and manipulator despite her good intentions by the few who whip up the frenzy of a cowed and ignorant populace.
The message isn't comforting, echoing so many others in this apocalyptic age, particularly those of the "things-have-to-get-worse-before-they-get-better" stripe. And yet Alexander doesn't leave us hopeless:
"You are in the smallest speck that isn't zero The bang in a box The black to vanishing You are invisible, in the dark matter drown of elements stripped. All Owing to The Shiva fold Still you live Furious." - from "All. Owing to the Shiva Fold"
The promise of rebirth from the void is not denied, nor is the hope that lessons of the current incarnation of human civilization are not lost in those rebirths.* Jewish Encyclopedia