Fragment of the Head of a Queen

Cate Marvin

Sarabande Books

It’s difficult to classify the poems of Cate Marvin’s Fragment of the Head of a Queen. Certainly, a lyric presence dominates the book, but calling Marvin a lyric poet doesn’t indicate the full sting of her work. Of course, comparisons are handy, but inadequate, and claiming Marvin akin to Plath (which has happened more than once already) is both unfair and off the mark. For one thing, Marvin’s poems are more narrative than Plath’s. And also, Marvin goes places not even Plath would dare. But these poems are hardly straightforward in their narratives. It’s as if Marvin herself speaks of this in the book’s opening poem, “Love the Contagion,” which commands us to, “Look at the moon / for its holes.” In fact, the best and most surprising attribute of Marvin’s second book is her tendency to push toward those holes and to craft poems consistently without a narrative center, where nearly everything gravitates toward the peripheral.

Consider the opening lines of “Postscript”:

                        We sure are tired, so long’s the longing
                        we undertook. It would put you to sleep
                        to read the book of examinations, trials,
                        and speculations. Even the cattle minded
                        the haul we had in mind for them, lugging
                        the same records across and back the same
                        lands, as if we were lost in the ocean.

There’s a welcome sense of the indefinite here, much of which stems from the confusion of pronouns contrasted with the heavy wordplay. We’re never offered an identification of the ‘we’ or the ‘you,’ and it’s difficult to understand the relationship between them. Clearly, the poem is meant as something written in the aftermath of a journey undertaken. But it’s not clear whether the ‘you’ was once part of the ‘we,’ whether the ‘you’ abandoned the journey at one point, or otherwise. Perhaps the ‘you’ is actually intended as a personification of the journey’s original destination. Either way, it doesn’t matter. The poem isn’t concerned with clarity or destination. Thus, the poem lacks a center, something the reader can latch on to contextualize what’s being told, which allows the lines to communicate a state of mind instead—isolation, disillusion, abandonment—and the surrounding, sometimes comical, details that accompany such a state. Not surprisingly, as the poem closes, Marvin perhaps addresses the need for narrative clarity in contemporary poetry when she says, “[W]e have nothing more to sing of you.”

In much the same vein, Marvin’s poems often pursue significance, the quest for a larger meaning, without ever arriving at such a thing. “Azaleas,” written in couplets, makes a series of comical declarations, each of which is stated and immediately questioned:
                        It was a town so quiet, the mailman was empty-handed.
                        Why then nostrils of bloom, breathing so pinkly?
                        Even the town crier had taken a vow of silence.
                        Why at the house’s edge, beneath a wide-eyed window?

Like “Postscript,” the journey, not the destination, is Marvin’s main concern. Many of these poems render again and again the attempt to find meaning, only to discover details which don’t add up to paint a complete picture. Another poem entitled “After the Last Fright” best represents this:

                        I carved upon my desk unsayables.
                        He drank until he vomited on himself.
                        Eavesdropping, the others resisted sleep.
                        The house knew the pain of sun on lacquered floorboards.

                        I carved it with the tips of scissors.
                        A door creaked; he hung his head into the room.
                        Please, the others cannot sleep.
                        The shingles twitched like skin beneath moonlight.

And so the poem continues, all in quatrains, the first six of which allow a line for each of the narrative’s four principal characters. But nothing allows the poem the sum of its parts. We get glimpses of a narrative center, an overarching narrative; we gather some relationship has been dissolved, that the speaker of the poem is drinking sorrows away. We aren’t given the whole thing, however, and the desperation of a bad break-up doesn’t precisely suit all the poem’s oddities. And the farther we read, the harder it gets to make sense of anything, the more surreal the lines become. In fact, halfway through the poem abruptly confuses the form it’s taken. No longer does each character get its obligatory line. So it ends with a stark cocktail of character confusion, violence and laughter:

                        The house wore its flames like a hat.
                        The house called a radio talk-show.
                        We drank all night, laughed all night, the night he left.
                        I shook in its mouth till the house drank me up.

Despite the bleak overtones, Fragment of the Head of a Queen also displays Marvin’s comic gifts. “Cloud Elegy,” perhaps the finest poem here, delivers a series of taut punch lines. “The world felt bad,” it begins, “Every leaf looked / like it needed a cigarette.” And later:

                                    Doves, those trusted symbols
                        of fidelity, engaged in the most tawdry
                        affairs, could not have told you where
                        their hearts lay, even if you could have
                        pointed them out, say, in that ditch over
                        there. And although the sex was great,
                        being both untoward and ill-conceived,
                        the world was relieved to get a prescription.

Wordplay, innuendo, puns, like the details of other poems where the narrative remains unclear, also allow us to interpret human experience. In fact, the overall theme of Fragment of the Head of a Queen attempts to do just that, to evaluate human experience according how it affects our lives going forward while continuing to look back. Instead of searching for the moral of the story, though, Marvin finds another way to do what we have always done, or, as she says in “Muckraker,” “Here, as with any tale, / the moral’s like a molar, set far back in the mouth / of the story. Open wider, let me stick my pliers in….”

--Jay Robinson