Oracle by Cate Marvin

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Oracle, Cate Marvin’s third book of poetry, is looser, more intense and more intimate than her stunning but somewhat remote Fragment of the Head of a Queen, which was published back in 2007. As a reviewer, I must say that some of her interviews led me to like her – she’s close to my age, she thinks Sylvia Plath is hilarious (a fact widely and wrongly, I think, overlooked) and her father worked for the CIA, so we share some “cold war” childhood upbringing basics. (My father contracted for the Department of Defense and Department of Energy during my childhood.) She’s also a co-founder of VIDA, that champion of women’s writing and, ahem, women’s book reviewing.

Another thing that motivated me to write this review? Almost every previous review I read of Marvin’s work constantly compared her to Sylvia Plath, and while I am a Plath fan, my pet peeve is reviewers comparing female writers to Plath, Sexton, or Dickinson (it’s lazy! How about you read some more female poets so you can widen that circle of comparisons! Or just compare us to male poets?) OK, sorry about that diversion, but I just wanted to get that out of the way. Cate Marvin can be called many things, but she’s really not a confessional writer, in the sense that Plath was; her poems dart and shadow in and out of “real life,” without really revealing the writer. And Marvin does invoke Plath’s suicide in “Oracle,” the title poem, but I’m pretty sure it’s with a purpose; to criticize the way we see women poets through a different lens than male poets. Yes, Cate Marvin writes dark, alternately intense and playful poetry that’s highly sonic and lyrical. And so did Sylvia Plath. And so do lots of other writers! Anyway, I promise no more references to Sylvia Plath in the rest of this review. I do not promise not to compare Cate Marvin to contemporary pop singers, however.

Oracle’s themes include the tortures of high school, violence against women, and the general brokenness of the world. While it may have dark themes, it’s a book that introduces lightness and humor frequently, and the casual “I/We/You” speakers invoke a kind of comfortable knowingness, a sense of shared secrets, that draws the reader in. It is an enjoyable book to read, and the use of seemingly casual language and diction mixed with careful attention to rhythm, slant rhymes, and alliteration make for a very specific, contemporary kind of highly-skilled poetry.

There’s a recurring “dead girl” character that appears first in “High School as Dead Girl,” (which you can read in its entirety on The Rumpus here.

Here are a few lines from the middle and end of the poem:

“I was known to be dumb, detentioned, a kill myself kind of
girl, but it was you who shot herself in the head. What kind
of girl shoots herself in the head?…

…when we wanted
what we all wanted. To be pretty. Which then meant famous.”

It’s pleasantly reminiscent of a Lana Del Rey lyric, but sharper and funnier. (I personally was humming LDR’s “This is What Makes Us Girls” under my breath while reading this poem.)

Cate MarvinThere are a series of these high school-era poems that really sew this book, which is organized as one long unbroken section, together, along with the repeating figure of the dead girl. There’s something about high school misery that’s such a universal touchstone, and the adolescent girl-as-victim is a familiar trope, and here they serve the useful purpose of grounding a book in specific, time-bound, “real life” – I’m putting “real life” in quotes because with Marvin, you’re never quite sure as a reader what’s persona and what’s real. I believe she does that on purpose, in all her books. You should probably never assume the speaker is ever Marvin herself, though she might lead you to think so in poems like “My First Husband was my Last” but then, in poems like “High School: Industrial Arts” she’s plainly not the speaker. All we get are slippery speakers in Oracle, one that embraces an “I” and a “you” and a “we” that makes us feel comfortable, just as she goes for uncomfortable territory: suicide, violence, the abject. Marvin warns us not to be too sure of ourselves in “High School as the Picture of Dorian Gray:”

“You are never not what you were…

It’s not that masks themselves are lies, rather

our masks are us, therefore uniform: fear us.”

This is where our shared “Cold War” childhoods may come into play; when your father does secret work for the government, and you learn, as I did at seven, that your phones are tapped, you’re never going to feel completely comfortable just going all full disclosure in your poetry. Despite an increase compared to her previous books in personal revelation and chattiness, there’s a sense of control and distance even in her most affable poems here. In her title poem, “Oracle,” Marvin tells us: “Dead girls don’t go the dying route to get known./ You’ll find us anonymous still…” Her conversational tone belies the disasters her poems leave in their wake: eyeballs traded for candy bars, hurricanes, wrecked marriages, one lost body after another.

Marvin also touches on ars poetica and the life of writers in “Elegy for a Famous Author Now Asleep in Brooklyn” and “Poetry Machines.” “What am I coming to poetry for?” she asks in “Poetry Machines,” “A gnat sunk/ in a bowl of milk?” She demands: “…give us some true ugliness.” These poems succeed to give us clear images of both beauty and ugliness, and allow a crack in the persona of Marvin’s speakers, enough to shine light on the darkness.

If you’ve been a fan of Cate Marvin’s work in the past, you’ll find more of the same things to admire: her clever use of cadence and language, her dark worldview and canny observances on the lives of women. If you’re new to her work, Oracle is a wonderful introduction to her voice(s), and her capacity to write visceral, exhilarating poems.


Jeannine Hall Gailey recently served as the second Poet Laureate of Redmond, Washington. She is the author of five books of poetry: Becoming the Villainess, She Returns to the Floating World, Unexplained Fevers, The Robot Scientist’s Daughter, and her most recent, Field Guide to the End of the World, winner of the Moon City Press Book Prize. Her web site is www.webbish6.com and you can follow her on Twitter @webbish6. More from this author →