“The villagers think I’m a witch. Of course, they’re not wrong.”
– from “Cerberus”
If you’re going to Hell, bring a good guide. A guide who can sneak you in, past Cerberus, of course, but—more importantly—one who can sneak you back out. Virgil was excellent. He took Dante through Hell: they saw the sights, and they both came out unscathed. Orpheus wasn’t so successful. He went to the underworld to free his love, Eurydice, and he would have gotten her out, but he ignored Hades’s command—“Do not look back!”—and he looked back just before they exited. Orpheus made it out, but, alas, Eurydice was forced to remain.
In Moroccan Holiday—a poetic series following a married couple that won the 2019 Poetry Box Chapbook Prize—Lauren Tivey takes a turn as guide into Hell. The hell she brings us to, ironically, is in exotic Morocco, a paradise transformed into a hell by the anguish the speaker endures as her husband’s alcoholism bashes her between despair and hope, revulsion and desire. The key to her suffering (the serpent knows our weakness) is hope. Even up to the end of the journey, she—the “wife of the many woes”—will not give up hope: hope for her husband, for her marriage, for her happiness. She is an excellent guide. She brings us safely through Hell and out the other side—but she herself does not escape.
Our journey begins auspiciously with “Memorial,” a prose poem in which Tivey describes the boat passage the speaker (an American) and her husband (a Scot) take from Gibraltar to Tangier:
Us that day on the boat, bright-eyed and eager and gliding across the
iridescent bay where the two continents arch to a kiss, rainbow spumes
dashing off the prow, and the delight of leaping dolphins, and the
liquescent sunlight a balm of all ills.
Here we see the speaker’s hope leaping from the page, just as the dolphins leap from the water. Tivey’s words are iridescent and liquescent. Tangier, approached from the sea, beckons her: “the gulls cried their / approval, and on the distant hill the bougainvillea drowsily nodded yes, yes, / welcome.” As the poem continues, however, we see these invitations as siren-calls, and we learn that the couple is not crossing over to paradise, but rather “crossing toward catastrophe.”
In the very next poem, “Arriving Tangier,” we see the setting for this catastrophe. The poem opens with a scene that might have sprung from a Bosch painting:
The one-legged man is begging in the road.
Nearby, a boy is punching his horse in the snout,
dutifully, with neither wrath nor glee. And
the insane woman, with her feet wrapped
in bandages, skin lesions oozing, is swathed
in a blood-red Moroccan flag which barely
covers her behind, is muttering, is following us
down a dark street, is a nightmare…
This is the corporeal hell that mirrors the psychological hell the speaker endures as she confronts her husband’s addiction and their dissolving marriage.
While the couple is in Hell, Tivey’s speaker is our guide, but she is also seeking her husband, striving to bring him back from the alcoholism that has taken over his life. “His mind,” she says in “He Would Have Cared,” is “now hidden away in a lapis / lazuli tomb, frozen in time, like some Egyptian king.” But such a rescue is not possible. The speaker knows it. She realizes it a dozen times during her journey, but still she hopes. “I don’t want him to die, / am not going to abandon him.” This last quote comes from the poem “The Other Woman,” in which the speaker also admits, “Yet there’s a part of me / that would easily put a rabid dog down.” Likewise, as she slips through the markets of Morocco in “Call to Prayer,” and is able to think, for a moment, of “something like [her] own happiness,” she makes another confession: “There are times I imagine him dead, or / inexplicably vanished, a life my own.”
Again and again our guide will be on the verge of giving up on her husband and on their marriage. In one of the most memorable poems in the collection, “The Math of It,” Tivey’s speaker asks the question that everyone, at some time, has thought of:
…Tell me that—
how much pain to endure
in the name of love? Show me
an algebraic formula, calculations,
a litmus test, a pie chart, or
a spreadsheet of points logged + / –
and yes, even a Venn diagram
will do. Can it be measured
in empty bottles? A laundry list
of injuries and embarrassments?
We find in “The Math of It” the turmoil that has engulfed the speaker, that has led her to ask this primal question: when do you give up on someone? She does, more or less, answer her own question in the end, when she states that “surely, someone / must’ve figured this out by now.” We know no one has. Math does not figure in this question. Tivey’s speaker might be our guide, but there is no guide for her.
Like the “The Math of It,” “All the Soft Things” also stays with the reader. In this poem, the husband and wife find a sick cat. They pray for its life—”Please, / just this one thing.” And they do more than pray: they feed it and wash it and nurse it. The cat, like their marriage, is damaged, perhaps too far gone. And yet, they try to save it. “We cannot save everything, we know, / but we must try. We must always try.” Such hope—even in the face of hopelessness—continues to fuel their journey.
Toward the end of Moroccan Holiday, we find “Himself,” the longest poem, at four pages, in the collection. This poem is an extended dramatic monologue in which the husband—the alcoholic—gives his apologia in Scottish brogue. The husband explains why he became an alcoholic, recalling the trauma he endured as a child when he discovered his mother dead, lying on the floor: “I was jes a boy, and I caint ever / ferget me ma’s dead eyes.” This traumatic event, however, does not fully explain his alcoholism; genetics, he insists, also played a part: “Tae blooud in me… aye, it’s taken my / sister, my brother, my da, these genetics / nae friend tae anyone.”
“Himself” recalls the tales the damned told Dante in his trip to the underworld. Written in Scottish brogue, “Himself” somehow suggests the other-language-ness of The Inferno (Italian or some dusty old translation, perhaps). The narrator—Himself—like the damned who Dante encountered, speaks without guile. Like them, Himself is stuck in Hell eternally, and so has no need to conceal information or even appeal to his audience’s sympathies: he speaks honestly and candidly. So, when Himself describes the source of his alcoholism as “tae beast in me / an tae hoonger too strong,” we accept the proposition as true—that alcoholism, like a demon, has taken possession of him.
Toward the end of “Himself,” we find why the wife has not abandoned her husband. She clings to him, and—though he is lost—she will not leave his side:
I used tae be good,
a tight scot, ya, but a good man wit decent
morals, but tae war in me’s changin’ me—an
tae woife, she will nae go, and I luv her fer’t.
Love keeps her by him, and hope ensures she will stay. “I tell her—roon, lass, / save yerself, a’fore i’m tae death of ye.” That is the last line of “Himself,” but, as we come to learn, the wife will not heed this warning.
In less skillful hands, Moroccan Holiday might have come off as a morose tale, but Tivey is a dazzling and mesmerizing poet. Even when distraught, Tivey’s speaker is able to give us glimpses of the Moroccan paradise that surrounds her, and—as an able guide—describe it with exquisite detail and an innate, organic musicality. Consider “Hunger,” for example, which begins with a description of date groves, and with the sensuous (and sensual) eating of a date:
In the date groves of Skoura, laden sprays
of ripe fruit; pendulous, bountiful. And then,
the glazed lozenge upon the tongue, soft
and erotic spurt under the teeth, syrup
sun-warmed, heady as honey, sweet as sex.
This passage contains organic and slant rhymes—such as “then” and “lozenge”; “spurt” and “syrup”; “heady” and “honey”—and several instances of alliteration and sibilance (“syrup / sun-warmed… sweet as sex,” for example). These rhymes and chimes are suggestive, not insistent, and—along with the rhythms of the passage (especially the last three lines)—they create a melody that is seductive and even erotic.
Musical lines, like those from “Hunger,” appear in many parts of Moroccan Holiday. Likewise, evocative details can be found in almost every poem. In “Night of Decree,” my favorite poem in the collection, such details abound. The poem describes a marketplace at night:
Full moon pulsing over the spice souk’s clamor,
where robed women thread in and out of stalls, amid
colorful cones, umber-hued rows, and flavorful peaks,
bartering prices for cumin, ginger root, and saffron.
This market, in Tivey’s hands, becomes both real and other-worldly. Under the moon—the “crafty old mother”— spells and roots are purchased by “witch-wives.” They wander through “perfumed rooms of candlelight,” where “hoopoe nails or hyena skulls” can be purchased, along with “a sealant of black wax, / to thwart the appetites of beaters, cheaters, and drunks.” Tivey describes a furtive sanctuary for women, a place where they, working together and employing supernatural aid, are able to defend themselves against their repressive and domineering husbands. While the women of the marketplace craft spells, Tivey crafts poetry: she transforms the details of the world into words, creating a second world, which is her sole refuge.
Tivey is a fearless poet, and it is the candid and contradictory thoughts and images she offers us in Moroccan Holiday that make the book engrossing and unforgettable. It is her work’s honesty and intimacy, as much as its imagery and musicality, that make the reader want to walk beside her on this dark and lustrous journey. In the last poem, “The Journey Back,” the speaker addresses us directly: we are to be let out of Hell, we find, but she will remain. She has lost hope in the purpose of her journey (saving her husband, saving her marriage), and yet she will stay. In the beautiful and forlorn last lines of the book, she admits her despair, and she asks our indulgence so that she might at least fantasize about returning from her hopeless predicament:
this night will be deliberate, luxurious, under the flutter
of white gauze drapes, our bodies recalling one another’s
touch, tracing map lines back to the source of something
that once was. It will be like this, and I suspect you will
indulge me here, as you know just how much has been lost.