I will admit that after fourteen years (give or take) living in the Northwest, I feel a bit frustrated by the poetry world’s seeming apathy towards Northwest poetry, which is vibrant and quirky and goes way beyond the “eagle, heron, rainbow, ferry” clichés.
Case in point: a first book by Seattle native Marjorie Manwaring, Search for a Velvet-Lined Cape. How could I not fall in love with a book of poems with a title that evokes old-school magic and carnival people, in which the first line of the first poem in Part One (from “Tiger Trick”) is: “So a magician, a mentalist, and a poet walk into a bar.” The whole book is an exploration of hat tricks, the mysteries of “light as a feather, stiff as a board,” in which dead poets explode into strings of expletives. The book shimmers with yearning for a life with more magic.
Yes, there are your inevitable bird-and-rain images here – but more enticingly, a preoccupation with sensual experience indicated by that velvet lining, with levitation and liminality. Some of my favorite poems in the book contain exchanges between a speaker who works as a magician’s assistant and her husband, such as these from “Levitation;”
You look pale—levitation again?
Yes, sets her keys on top of the TV…
Loud chewing. Tell me what it’s like again…
The floating—it’s almost unnoticeable, like
lying on a comfortable bed and—she hesitates—there’s a sound.
Hmmm? His jaw pops.
A faint—singing. The butterflies.
A recurring desire to simultaneously be the center of attention and to disappear appears on these pages, in the voices of several characters – a “Monkey Girl” from a carnival grown old, Joseph of Cupertino, a priest who “had the gift of levitation and ecstatic visions,” but most explicitly in the poem “Disappearing,” again in the voice of the magician’s assistant:
When the magician made me disappear, I felt a lurch in my stomach, a zap in my skull…I felt things floating through me and thought This is the translucent life of amoebae or squid, this is what it is to be the Holy Ghost. When the magician brought me back, I thought This is the shimmer of life between transparent and opaque and took my bow.
A hunger for the strange – a glimpse inside the “bat boy’s” life from the Weekly World News, a “Cloud man” who drives around in a car offering children the clouds of their choice – pervades the book, as does a bit of melancholy offered in literary notes from figures like Gertrude Stein (“Rejection Letter from Gertrude Stein”) and Zelda Fitzgerald (“Letter from Zelda.”) An unnamed speaker tries to navigate the pranks – and poor Karaoke skills – of deceased poets in “Greetings from the Dead Poet’s Convention (A Postcard”, which imagines “Emily D. leaping out of Jack Kerouac’s lap, letting rip such a string of expletives that even Allen Ginsberg blushed.”
This book refuses to allow the reader to resist the author’s love of a sideshow, a knack for entertainment and spectacle, a refusal to settle for the safe or respectable. May all books of Northwest poetry be as brave.