Invitations in poetry are rare. Too often one observes from the outside or struggles to comprehend what the inside might be. Pansy Maurer-Alvarez invites the reader into rooms that have no metaphorical context, but rather provide the reader with visual clues to the poem’s motifs. The color red acts as catalyst and source for the imagistic, almost pointillist, development of the images.
Where are we? At a reception in an art gallery or at a museum, in a child’s room in Philadelphia, in Egypt at the great tombs, at a noisy party, outside under a strong sun where there are flocks of birds. Autobiographical threads hold the poems loosely together; Maurer-Alvarez often disrupts the narrative line and fabricates false sequels and sequences to avoid the emergence of an overly personal line. These are not lyrical poems; they draw their strength from their particularity, their grounded physical presence in the mental and emotional landscape of the reader. They are objects, in the same way that a painting is an object in its own right. In this sense, Oranges in Januaryis in the Objectivist tradition of George Oppen, whom Maurer-Alvarez quotes in the book’s closing poem.
Who is with us? Among others, the 15,000 people who died in the 2003 heat wave in France, 16th-century-Flemish painter Simon Bening; modernist writers Barbara Guest and Alice Notley, George Oppen, and the 14 poets whose lines were used in Section III to create ‘collaborative’ poems. But who else is with us? Lovers, the author’s father, mother, and grandmother; the author herself.
The book is divided into three sections: ‘In Memory of the Unclaimed,’ ‘Januaries,’ and ‘A Dream of Deliverance.’ Sections I and II form a tightly structured, coherent whole. Section III is quite different. To preserve the integrity of the structural unity set up in the first two sections, Maurer-Alvarez could have ended the book with the title poem of Section III. Although the experimental sonnets and the ‘Seven Video Clips’ are well-crafted texts, they do not provide the supple and subtle shifting between foreground and background, present and past, and inner and external geographies that the other poems do so skillfully.
In Section I, the poems often move towards the complete independence of the narrative voice or towards the fusion of an absent person or time, a natural element, such as a river, and the speaker. The relationship of thought and language to human mortality is clearly conveyed. ‘Coming and Going in Rain’ (22) suggests that the contemplation of a work of art leads to the absorption of the barriers between external and internal realities; memory becomes a thread linking the two spheres of awareness. Art is a vehicle to displace the present, thus allowing the shaping of a memory, not its creation or recreation but the shaping and molding of images and lived fragments. In ‘Valediction,’ a beautifully modulated, evocative poem for her father, Maurer-Alvarez uses language as a sculpting tool, moving her father’s death and absence into a timeless space where she feels that ‘From between your fingers the light / will leave your grasp and follow its trajectory / into night---where the subconscious memory darts’ (34).
In Section II, modulations of physical sensations bring the narrator to a higher spiritual and emotional level. Rooms provoke memories and stimulate consciousness of essential changes in awareness and comprehension. What appear to be dreamscapes are not, in fact, the product of a dreaming state but rather the willful suspension of reality to induce awareness of self and past. The narrator confesses that she has a ‘desire for three-dimensional space within the folds of the reveries I keep hidden most of the time” (61). The section concludes with self-advice: ‘Do not go back to the beginning / and make a promise. / Another moment awakens / and new vocabulary begins to cling to its malleable complexity: / it grows, this time in bright blur, black and orange.’ (69).
There is a great deal to talk about and analyze in Oranges in January. One could analyze themes, images, use of color, and somehow overlook the essential quality of the book: its beauty of expression and complete immersion in the world we know. Its abstractions are our abstractions, the thoughts and feelings we share as human beings moving through and creating worlds we do not always understand or grasp. ‘what wave of love of broken-hearted weariness, honeysuckle by the wayside, crucial memory of beauty that lingers between fingers fingering the bed linens, hair skin and chaos from before recounted memory, when we were once so newborn and that endangered’ (116).
- Andrea Moorhead, Tears in the Fence.
Pansy Maurer-Alvarez was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and emigrated to Switzerland in 1973. She began writing poetry as a teenager and completed 11 years of literary studies at universities in the US, Spain and Switzerland, where she worked for a short time as a teacher and translator. Upon moving to Pairs in 1991, she abandoned plans for furthering her academic career in order to devote herself to poetry full time. Her poems appear regularly in publications throughout Europe and the US and she has work in several anthologies, including Ladies, Start You Engines (Faber and Faber), Final de Entrega (Colectivo Ediciones) and Visiting Dr. Williams(University of Iowa Press). Some of her poems have been translated into French, German and Spanish. She is the author of 5 previous collections, is a contributing editor for Tears in the Fence and curates the Poets Live reading series in Paris.
In a Form of Suspension, corrupt press, Paris, 2014.
Ant-small and Amorous, corrupt press, Paris, 2012 (Bi-lingual edition with French translations by Anne Talvaz).
When the Body Says It’s Leaving, Hanging Loose Press, Brooklyn, 2004.
Lovers Eternally Nearing, Editions Thomas Howeg, Zürich, 1997 (With original artwork by Walter Ehrismann, bi-lingual edition with German translations by Rudolf Bähler).
Dolores: the Alpine Years, Hanging Loose Press, Brooklyn 1996.
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