Weeds and Death-hair: A Review of Oracle by Cate Marvin

Marvin, Cate. Oracle. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2015.

        Oracle, the third and newest collection of poems by Cate Marvin, does not mean to break the reader’s heart. It means to mash it through a meatgrinder. These are poems for the cast-iron-stomach reader, the let’s-skip-the-pleasantries reader. These are poems finely tuned for the ear, full of inventive echoes and spring-loaded syntax. Marvin’s speakers take the reader back to high school and a bad marriage and, somehow, manage to stay fresh and electrifying. Full of nagging dread and stomach-turning lines, Oracle calls on the dead and the living to speak on all manners of ugliness, awful memories, and the chilly, barbed testimonials that remain when we know too much to suffer the cheap flowers of politeness.

        Marvin’s speakers build atmosphere by bearing witness to everything without holding back, as in “I’ll Be Back”--

            I am one with the weeds and their death-
hair, an anonymous splendor, my lines zigzagging
artery all over the crushed glass, the littered potato

chip bags that fill with air to blow their small metallic
balloons toward the water that meets the end of this
street… (20)

These speakers invoke the rubbish of the unpretty and people the collection’s landscape with a wild realism that feels authentic and mesmerizing. The “weeds and death hair” find their way into these poems like cracks in the sidewalk, staring the reader in the face, unromantic and unpretentious. “Poetry Machines” returns to this mode--

          We need more cold sores, need more of what
won’t give us; give us some true ugliness. Your books
annually, slick events appearing like the latest model of a
It would seem you do not consider the writing of poetry
hard. (47)

Many of the poems in this book find their center in the hideous or in the hilarity of failure. Marvin is a poet who, it is safe to say, does think the writing of poetry should be hard, or at the very least careful, thoughtful, and hard-hitting.

        As in her previous collections, Marvin wields the satirical voice with mastery, mocking figures of authority by repositioning them as ridiculous speakers, as in “High School: Industrial Arts”--

We don’t want you cutting those pretty fingers
off or sawing yourself in half. This is a man’s
work. You, wipe that smirk off your face. Last
thing I need is one of you girls dying on my watch. (29)

What works so well in poems like this are the ways speakers reveal themselves. The shop teacher is expecting at least one of the girls to die, the “dead girl” being another theme that hinges the collection together. In Oracle, men tend to be monstrous or faulted. Here, the male speaker’s sexism is made ridiculous. Marvin is a skillful ventriloquist, and her ability to turn the lens back on these figures is uncanny.

        Most of the muscle in these poems lies in the deconstructed phrase. As in Marvin’s previous collections, sounds are taken apart and strung back together, and the effect is hypnotic. “Dogsbody” is particularly playful--

My dog (happens to be) dying, my reverse God,
my good as dead dog, whose peculiar glistening
eyes are now lighting up on me sitting beneath

a window black with lack of light, the lit room
casting its appalling theater… (27)

Here, Marvin plays with the idea of “dog” and “god” being reflective of one another and also reflects phonetically with phrases like “black with lack of light.” More than alliteration and internal rhyme, Marvin is reaching for speech-in-a-blender, a kind of rawness that she achieves by allowing one clause to haunt the next, the same way her poems are haunted by unshakeable figures and the burning urge to speak out.

        Some of these poems are difficult. Some may leave the reader queasy. Especially “Dead Girl Gang Bang,” which addresses the speaker’s discomfort at discovering a friend’s involvement in a disgusting group sex crime. Marvin maintains the sense of urgency in these poems, keeps the telling cold. These are difficult, but necessary poems, poems that are not only well-crafted and hard-hitting, but ones that need to be read, shared, and discussed for purposes larger than their own. We, as readers living in this world, need poems like “Dead Girl Gang Bang” to be written. Along with “Apparition,” “Oracle,” and a handful of others, this poem establishes one of the central currents of the collection: the “dead girl” being brought to light through the speaker’s reflection on events. In the eponymous poem, “Oracle,” the speaker defends the much-assailed Sylvia Plath--

                           Sylvia Plath killed herself. She ate
her sin. Her eye got stuck on a diamond stickpin.
You take Blake over breakfast, only to be bucked
out on your skull by a cat-call crossing a parking lot.
Consuming her while reviling her, conditioned to
hate her for her appetite alone: her problem was
she thought too much? (63)

Marvin allows dead female figures to brush against one another in order to facilitate a conversation, to put to the reader her burning, necessary question. Far from feeling transparent and forced, her angle is real and unavoidable. These poems cannot shrink away from their feminist underpinnings in order to coddle the reader.

        It is difficult to compare Marvin’s poems to work by any other poet. Readers who enjoyed Marvin’s second book, Fragment of the Head of a Queen, will be thrilled with the way she maintains that collection’s tangled musicality in Oracle. These poems, in their no-nonsense kind of style, are a sort of antithesis to the soft, flowing, periodic sentence structure that frames so many autobiographical poems written today. Marvin’s ingenuity will feel so fresh and exciting to most, but will feel strange to others who loathe picking apart the tangles. Marvin’s stories and speakers, on the other hand, are universally compelling and/or terrifying, and for this reason, even less adventurous poetry readers should go out and snag a copy.

—Robert Campbell