Oyster Boy Review 10  
  January 1999
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The Luminous Disarray, by Mary E. Martin

E. Barnsley Brown

The Luminous Disarray.
Mary E. Martin.
Floating Bowl Press, 1998.
60 pages, $10 (paperback).
ISBN: 0890023395

As I read Mary E. Martin's first book, The Luminous Disarray, I was reminded of Virginia Woolf's words: "Life is not a series of gig-lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end." The collection's rather plain gray matte cover promises little luminosity, yet Martin's poems do indeed remember, record, and evoke the extraordinary in ordinary life, allowing us to see specific moments of being within the endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. The strength of this volume lies in its clear-sighted unpretentious focus, a focus that enables Martin to gesture to the numinous while addressing the realities of life in a human body.

Not surprisingly, Martin teaches movement and writing workshops, and therefore the metaphors of dance and the language of the body scattered throughout the collection seem particularly appropriate. For example, in "'I could waltz across Texas with you,'" Martin writes, "Air lifts, assumes our voices / lost in steps, in the beveling / of our words, syllables curve skyward from our pivoting bodies" (5). The dance—the simultaneous creation of bodily and poetic movement—lifts the dancers until they are "luminous, gliding horizontally, not knowing / when the prairie will end" (5). The title poem of the collection speaks of the luminous disarray as an experience of union with the natural world and others: "feeling the pressure of light / no longer outside, but within us" (3). She leads the reader through the disarray with nimble steps in four untitled that are akin to musical movements in this quiet but deft collection.

Though titled sections would make for easier reading, the absence of them does impel the reader to locate a pattern, however circuitous, in the poems. The first section deals thematically with intimacies between friends and lovers. Martin captures the excitement of new friendship in "The Ohio Valley," the pain of ending a friendship in "Forgetting a Friend," the fear of sexual intimacy in "Hymn #28," and the beauty of matrifocal relationships in "Possibilities," the poem which sets up the final section of the collection. Martin's second section oscillates between past and present, offering a down-to-earth meditation (as in the poem by that name) "for all you know of the world, / for anyone whose effect / you remember" (21) while her third section is filled with poems about art—dance and visual art in particular—and its ability to impart moments of awareness and luminosity. She writes of a painting by O'Keefe,

I unbend, stumble tight
and grey, wade with dim
legs through sand

towards a moment which dissolves,
inhaling a light
I've never known. (41)

In this poem, "Black Place III," the clipped rhythm of the lines is balanced by tercets and two final unrhymed couplet as Martin herself imposes an order on disorder, arranging the disarray for us.

The final section of the collection, my favorite, chronicles Martin's grief over her mother's cancer and death. Here Martin skillfully circumvents sentimentality and cliche to deliver poems that resonate with love, pain, and the unbreakable connection between mother and daughter alluded to at the end of section one. I am particularly taken in by the penultimate poem, "The Mother and Daughter Banquet," a beautiful narrative in which Martin examines her own life in contrast to that of her mother and an incredibly powerful spinster, Miss Havisham, who "with even the remnants of her passion / could set the room afire" (58). Though the other women in the poem have never seen "a woman so barren," Miss Havisham stands as the matriarchal figure, the steel magnolia who has dared to live a non-traditional life. Her presence in this last section upstages Martin's own mother and makes me wonder if Miss Havisham doesn't deserve to make more than a cameo in this collection. For if the moments Martin poetically evokes represent the luminous disarray, then Miss Havisham, in her crumbling magnificence, surely embodies it.

While I am rather ambivalent about some of the poems in this collection, others do approach and even encircle Woolf's luminous halo, offering light out of darkness, order within chaos. I have the sense that Martin herself is standing, sure-footed, where darkness and light conjoin, in "a place / where white falls through / and the lily opens, petals thundering / as I drop down the damp black stem" (41). Martin knows this place well, and if we let her, will take us there in a steady glide of lines.