Pinwheel by Marni Ludwig

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Marni Ludwig opens her debut collection, Pinwheel, with the dedication, “For my horrible, horrible girls.” And from this first proclamation, we know who the book is written for. It’s written for the girls.

The dedication reminded me of Tori Amos’ album, “Strange Little Girls,” a concept album consisting of covers of songs written and performed by men. Amos has always been pro-girl and anyone who knows anything about Tori Amos knows most boys don’t like her. But like Joanna Newsom, who has also suffered similar attacks, Amos never seemed to mind it. Both Newsom and Amos enter their songs and sing, unabashedly, from the perspective of a woman. Their stage presence is similar, as well: both court femininity without losing their incredible power and strength.

It takes bravery to stick to your guns. One risks appearing weak or silly—criticisms both singers get all the time. Ludwig’s choice of opening her book with this dedication demonstrates her strength. A weaker writer would have succumbed, would not have allowed for such transparency. It’s clear from the start, she’s not here to make friends, or to be popular. And we know this much already before we’ve even begun reading the poems.

Anorexia, heroin, and, later, a bad case of alcoholism helped me sleepwalk through the majority of my life. Anorexic at the age of eleven, I discovered alcohol at the age of thirteen. I see myself, from the age of eleven until my late thirties, blind, in perpetual white hospital gown.

I had been under the delusion that starving myself and alcohol use would somehow “keep” me. That under the warm white spell of starving (or drinking) I had entered a kind of limbo—a netherworld between this world and the next; that I was in a holding pattern, and that, soon enough God, or whoever was in charge of this enterprise, would shuttle me back to when this all began, back to the beautiful bright world of childhood. And though I knew this voice was delusional, the voice that hovered above me at all times promising me I could return, I was unable to make it stop. I spent most of my life struggling between the voice of delusion and the clear voice of reason.

In her collection, Ludwig explores these twin voices, dropping in and out of both of them. For example, in her poem, Lines from a Southern Airport

I wake and fix my shot and look at you.
I wake and fix my shot and look at you.

The heart beats its clinical name for slip,
A salt lake skipping its best ghost.

No one dreams herself empty-handed.
I steer the red bicycle I rode as a child.

Here, the first two lines are direct. There is no question what’s going on. The speaker is shooting drugs. And she tells this to us twice. The doubling here sets a kind of reverie, the result, of course, of using. Too, the double relays a sense of compulsive repetition, a repeated theme throughout the collection.

Then, in stanza two, we are told that the heart skips a beat—the result of the drugs—more direct, clear language. But in line four, we are suddenly transported. We are now in reverie, memory, or hallucination. What we are not is here. By the end of the poem, we have returned, miraculously, to the pretty kingdom of childhood. Magical thinking, and the result of the reverie resulting from using.

By compulsive doubling or repeating, Ludwig signals to the reader that we are dealing with a shadow, with two combating voices, one mimicking and interrupting the other. The book is packed with these doubles, these stutters. For example, from “Among the Living as Among the Dead”:

You died twice in a lace dress,
in a folding chair,
you didn’t hear the door.
You died twice, the trickle

of your smile sinking
like a miracle as you
let your eyes adjust.
You died in a lace dress—

the story is an excuse
for the voice. Begin again
the chorus of your carefully
reordered childhood.

The repetition of “You died in a lace dress” creates a kind of magical thinking. The first time we encounter the line, the “you” dies. The second time, negation erases the event; the “you” comes back to life. But then, the third and final time, the “you” dies again. Similarly, the last sentence in the poem, which begins with, “Begin again,” another doubling, introduces the idea that with death, one will be restored to childhood, and this time to a “reordered, better version of childhood.

This stuttering or doubling is, as I said, packed into the poems throughout this book: repeated statements, repeated words, doubles, even the word repeat. Here are some examples: “ In school I was good in death and math,” “Would you rather be dead/than bored? Dead/than loved?,” “Wisteria, wisteria,” “Hush/money, bullet/money,” “Ditch, ditch,” “Where was my house when all I was seeing/was smoke where was my house,?” “”I’m a saint really which means I give in quickly./I’m a saint. I should have died/five years ago on the stick,” and so on. You get the idea. Repetition serves as a reminder. But it also negates and, in addition, serves to fuse disparate meanings together.
The collection opens with the quote, “Being born is going blind,” by Townes Van Zandt, the singer songwriter who died from complications stemming from years of drinking and drug abuse. The poems in this collection introduce a kind of blindness, or what I recognize as a series of blind spots—moments of reverie or nightmare that interrupt the speaker’s moments of bright lucidity. For example, in the poem, Clinic:

I wish you were dead
or near. My paper slippers
glide down the shining hall
where my friends on the walls hang
their names. The shift clock blinks.
I don’t think I’ll get better. Outside
itinerant clouds nod and the lilies
twist in their beds.

We are in the hospital, rehab or a psych ward, we aren’t sure. What we know is the speaker is wearing the slippers one wears in detox, rehab, or a psych ward. But the slippers are gliding, they are not being worn. The lucidity is being cut with surrealism. Again, with the next line, the speaker’s friends are on the walls, hanging their names, not that the names of her friends or photos of her friends are hanging on the wall. The next two lines are lucid, clear but then are interrupted, by more surrealism, a kind of blindness, “Outside/itinerant clouds nod and the lilies/twist in their beds.”

These moments of surrealism are enacting blindness, the blindness that has baffled the speaker that has got her in the situations she is in. Like walking into a parallel universe and finding one’s self “nodding out in a hospital bracelet/humming some third harmony.”
The blindness Van Zandt speaks of, the moments of blindness we find ourselves in when we can no longer swallow what the world doles out.

Unlike other attempts at recovery literature, Ludwig’s collection aims at a looseness, a more complex series of experiences of what it means to be human. For example, when specific narrative details appear in this collection, the blinding, sometimes in the form of a metaphor, sometimes in the form of surrealism, almost always interrupts them. For example, in the poem, A Reenactment, “A good deed meets us at the corner,” rather than, for example, “the dealer meets us on the corner,” and in Cigar Box, “In school I was good in death and math,” rather than what the reader expects: “spelling” or “chemistry,” for example, “and math. “ The actual narratives are broken, the lines veering away from the topic at hand. Rather than telling us point blank, the poems describe and imply. As a result the book never feels reductive; never reads like a “recovery” book, though we understand, in fact, that it is.

There has been talk, of late, of a new breed of poetry—what has been coined variously “Post-post modernism,” and “the new new sincerity,” a lyric poetry that, though neither confessional nor narrative, does not shy away from revealing that the poems are, in fact, written by a person, a poetry that utilizes the “I,” but ventures into a new room of writing, one that plays with language and does not shirk from beauty. Not surprisingly, I find this work to be exhilarating, a breath of fresh air in a large room of poetry that often trumps sterility and smarts. Other poets I would include inside this aesthetic are Louise Mathias, Allison Benis White, Quinn Latimer, Lucie Daniel Anderson, Saratoga Rahe, and Lucie Brock Broido (in particular, Trouble in Mind). Ludwig is also, I believe, of this ilk.

Ludwig’s collection is a gorgeous and brave collection, one I have been awaiting years for, since I first encountered her work in Lucie Brock Broido’s course anthology. I carried an early rendition of Ludwig’s’ poems with me for years and loved, especially, her poem, Expert on Shadows. The ending I memorized and, in times of debilitating sorrow, I pulled the tiny scraps of paper upon which I’d handwritten the poems, out from my purse and, I swear, her words saved me.

Each day I wake from a dream
of stones. Nights I walk
and repeat
for myself the prayer

against shame I copied down.

Cynthia Cruz’s poems have been published in the New Yorker, Paris Review, Boston Review, American Poetry Review, Kenyon Review, and others. Her first collection of poems, RUIN, was published by Alice James Books, and her second collection, The Glimmering Room, was published by Four Way Books in the fall of 2012. She has received fellowships from Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony as well as a Hodder Fellowship from Princeton University. Her third collection of poems, Wunderkammer, is forthcoming from Four Way Books in 2014. She teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and lives in Brooklyn, New York. More from this author →