Kim Bridgford

"Wearing Retrospective Clothes": A Review of Over the Summer Water, Poems by Elizabeth McFarland

Over the Summer Water
Poems by Elizabeth McFarland
63 pages | Orchises | $14.95

"Memory wears retrospective clothes," Elizabeth McFarland writes in the title poem of this posthumous collection, and it is in the spirit of such retrospection that one must read this volume. In the work, there is both the beauty of Edna St. Vincent Millay and the playfulness of Marianne Moore. McFarland is primarily a formal poet—although she does also write free verse—and she examines her preoccupations within the confines of those forms. She is interested in identity, most often represented by the face, which can be lost to time or love. Loss permeates these poems, as does nature, particularly flowers (not surprising, given that the poet was an expert gardener). There is a sense that this poet was aware of time's passing, even as she was appreciating each moment. For this poet, life itself "wears retrospective clothes."

There is also a poetic reason for such retrospection. She found herself participating in the poetic tradition, rather than in the literary movements of the day. As her husband, poet Daniel Hoffman, notes in his introduction,

In the late 1940s and '50s, when most of her poems were written, there were two poetry movements dominating the zeitgeist and the literary magazines. One was the formal, metaphysical, ironic, impersonal style derived from the example and papal influence of T. S. Eliot. The other, in reaction to this, was the so-called confessional school. . . . Liz was attracted to neither of these period styles. (18)

She has more in common with Millay's "Renascence" than she does with Eliot's "The Waste Land." With the re-emergence of formal poetry in the 1980s, and the interest in New Formalism by younger poets, McFarland should have an interested readership. Moreover, those expanding the timeline of women's poetic history will find a place for McFarland both as an accomplished poet and as an editor.

As the poetry editor of The Ladies' Home Journal, McFarland published some of the most important poets of the period, and made sure that they had a general readership. Such a philosophy strikes a chord with Dana Gioia's important essay, "Can Poetry Matter?": "I would wish that poetry could again become a part of American public culture.

Loss permeates these poems, as does nature, particularly flowers.
I don't think this is impossible" (22). While shaping her readers' tastes, she also knew what they wanted. Hoffman writes of her standing up against members of the American Legion during the McCarthy era, and the poetry by the wife of one of its members. McFarland's answer speaks as well to the philosophy she held about poetry: "The Ladies Home Journal, she told them, represented core American values, and this statement, that neither rhymed nor scanned and had no stanzas but was written in lines of all different lengths, would to the Journal's readers, look foreign" (15). She both found a place for herself in the tradition, and for poetry in the American marketplace and imagination.

Yet she vascillated between the public world and the private world, and ultimately gave up her job to raise her family. Thus, it is no surprise that McFarland was fascinated by issues of identity. The poem "Myself" appropriately begins the volume. She writes, "I have stood so long in this place / I have lost account of my face" (23). Lucy Grealy's Autobiography of a Face, while also discussing Grealy's bouts with cancer, reinforces this view of the face: "This singularity of meaning—I was my face. . . also offered a possible point of escape. It became the launching pad from which to lift off, the one immediately recognizable place. . . . Everything led to it, everything receded from it—my face as personal vanishing point" (7).

It is not only the face that blurs. Women often find that their identities blur with those of others, and yet at the same time poets must lose themselves in language in order to produce their work. Having lost herself in the tree that is her subject, she thinks, "In my branches, words / Bicker like birds" (23). There is a cacophony she subjects herself to, and out of that comes music, one to which she gives herself.

Ironically, the structured form is like the limits within which a woman can find herself. Is she free or not free? Happy or discontent? In "Self-Portrait" she asks these questions, and says, "Think of caged lilies, of ravenous sparrows, / To know why she shot those tender arrows" (24). She has chosen this situation, while being aware of its boundaries. For her, the heart walks a tightrope ("The Acrobatic Heart"), "And all her poise is tight umbrellas, swung" (25). However, eventually she loses her balance: "Joy gestures in her and she pivots windward, / But soon must fall" ("The Acrobatic Heart," 25). It is death that catches her.

How to handle death in a poem, if you are a woman poet? Unlike Ozymandias, women have not traditionally found themselves preoccupied with erecting their own monuments, nor are they so caught up with their own immortality that they are unaware that their monuments will disintegrate. Instead, in the swirl of life, of children, of households, of love, women are profoundly aware of its passing. One way of illustrating this process is through aging. What is lost, and what is found? As McFarland writes in "Lost Girl," "She has grown into herself, she has lost her girlness / And found her face" (29).

Yet McFarland also writes about men and male poetic influence. It is interesting that "Lost Girl" is followed by "I Thought of Donne," with two poets—Donne and Hopkins—and one captain of industry, Henry Ford. It is a male poem, but McFarland sides with the poets. Henry Ford is, after all, "A patriarchal lord, / Counting his beads of praise" 930) The poets occupy her thoughts by day, and Henry Ford by night. However, in a twist reminiscent of Emily Dickinson, she contains all; yet her "multitudes," unlike Walt Whitman's, are more subdued. Moreover, in "Climbers" the male climbing rose, Dr. W. Van Fleet, climbs to her, in a gardener's remake of Rapunzel, and has her own female—and poetic—twist (31).

It is her relationship with Keats that is most fascinating, the way that the female poet interacts with a male poetic tradition. While Keats is focusing on his "Ode on a Grecian Urn," the eternal forms held there, McFarland has a different take, explaining in "The Flower": "Beauty is truth betrayed by the senses" (32). What other credo than to embrace loss? In McFarland, there are no lovers always on the verge of kissing, but instead the body, the face, the flower with its "greed for rotted ground" (32).

For McFarland, life is about the body, and the way to interpret the body is through the face. The face is the source of identity; it is the way we know people. In McFarland's poems, the face can be "Disordered" ("Communication," 35); it can be a source of tenderness, as when she looks at her lover's face—"eye-in-awnings is all that he seems" ("His Lashes, 39"); or it can be a "coin-pure face / Cut out in stone and set where torches hiss" ("No Other Love," 41). This perfect face is in death, but there are no kisses there, just legend and myth. The philosophy underpinning the book is clear in the poem "Two Voices," where the male voice bemoans that he regrets speaking of abstractions in his youth, when youth was about the body. However, the female voice answers that "Those talks were abstract / For you alone" (46). Life is always about the body, the body and the heart. Grealy agrees, saying,

I used to think that truth was eternal, that once I knew, once I saw, it would be with me forever, a constant by which everything else could be measured. I know now that isn't so, that most truths are inherently unretainable, that we have to work hard all our lives to remember the most basic things. . . . As I sat there in the cafe, it suddenly occurred to me that it is no mistake when sometimes in films and literature the dead know they are dead only after being offered that most irrefutable proof: they can no longer see themselves in the mirror. (222)

The contemporary poet McFarland can seem closest to is Dana Gioia; they both struggle with loss. Gioia writes in "The Litany," "This is a litany of lost things, / a canon of possessions dispossessed, / a photograph an old address, a key" (10). "I sing of all forsaken things," writes McFarland in "Mother Song," "Torn twigs, rent clouds, disheveled wings; / Brown leaves adrift on autumn's floor, / And letters yellowing in a drawer" (50).

This is not to say that her poems are depressing. There is an appealing playfulness in the poems, from the lilting quality in "Flower Market, Rittenhouse Square" to the pun in the last stanza of "Reminders": And the soft, incon- / Sequential rain" (51), a move recalling the many split words of Marianne Moore. McFarland is a poet who loves language, whose strong voice, full of feeling, will pause in the middle of a serious poem and say,

            A gawky breeze,
            Say South-Southwest,
            Will hesitantly
            Touch your face. ("Reminders," 62)

Yet the love that lives in this poem—for her beloved, for her family, for life, for writing—walks hand in hand with death. A friend of mine told me once that his goal was to write his poetry with all the affect removed. Only then, he told me, could meaning rise from the text, unencumbered by life. Elizabeth McFarland would have been astounded by this aim. Affect is very much a part of her goal, for she might argue, What is life without feeling? She writes about the importance of connections, her feeling about them, and vice versa. As she says in her poem "Elegy for Donald McFarland," "It's others' minds must worry to recall, / My leaves, my grass, my seaweed hair and all: / Death shall remember me when I forget you" (59). Perhaps she is articulating her aim, as a woman poet, to underscore this remembrance.

Like Keats, McFarland was a romantic poet, but with a small r. This small "r" says a great deal—not only about the difference between Romantic and romantic, but about the difference in scope. In a small space, McFarland says much about the human enterprise. Like Dickinson, McFarland goes for the delightful, with symbolic resonance. As she writes in "Climbers,"

            Dusk falls on my roses:
            On Purity and Peace,
            On Tausenchon and Elegance,
            And Pax and Golden Fleece. (31)

Hoffman agrees, noting in the introduction, "Hers was a romantic imagination, in love with the sounds of the language and committed to intensifying feeling through indirection, subtleties and surprises of metaphor" (18). The title poem underscores this notion. McFarland writes that "water is ghost-freighted with memory; / It widens in rings beyond telling" (63). The reader who stands there, "wear[ing] retrospective clothes," will understand the beauty of such an enterprise.

Works Cited

Gioia, Dana. "Can Poetry Matter?" Can Poetry Matter?: Essays on Poetry and American Culture. Saint Paul: Graywolf Press, 1992. 1-24.

---. "The Litany." Interrogations at Noon. Saint Paul: Graywolf Press, 2001. 10-11.

Grealy, Lucy. Autobiography of a Face. With an afterword by Ann Patchett. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994.


Kim Bridgford is a professor of English at Fairfield University, the editor of Dogwood and Mezzo Cammin, and a resident faculty member of Fairfield's new M.F.A. program on Enders Island, off the coast of Mystic, Connecticut. The recipient of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Connecticut Commission on the Arts, she is the author of three collections of poetry: Undone, Instead of Maps, and In the Extreme: Sonnets about World Records. She is currently working on a three-book poetry and photography project with visual artist Jo Yarrington, focusing on journey and sacred space in Iceland, Venezuela, and Bhutan. She was the 2007 Connecticut Touring Poet.


Kim Bridgford
Meg Schoerke

Jane Sutherland: I choose subjects that I cherish, or that spring from deep rooted feelings, or that come to me intuitively--dogs, roses, cranes, an iconic work of sculpture; and I concentrate on the details and slightest disparities in color, tone and textures in order to show how extraordinary are things we think we know and take for granted. The process of painting for me is connected to the physical properties of the subject as well as to its meanings, associations, and memories.
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