A Provisional Map of the Lost Continent, Reviewed by Gwynn O'Gara

A Provisional Map of the Lost Continent
by Gregory Mahrer

Winner of the Poets Out Loud Prize, Fordham University Press, 2016
Review by Gwynn O’Gara

A Provisional Map of the Lost Continent
A Provisional Map of the Lost Continent
Gregory Mahrer
Poets Out Loud Series
978-0823271153
(2016, Fordham University Press)
$17.40, Paper

In Eros, Anne Carson wrote, “The path of true wisdom is always a “leaping” across an erotic space between the known and the unknown.” In this tangy and haunting chronicle, Mahrer maps a consciousness both inside and outside normal time and space. Spanning the Oligocene to the Anthropocene, places and objects evoke old Europe and colonial Central and South America, while “acetate” and “toasters” tether us to the contemporary. Images of the written and spoken word form a motif of the expedition. Lush, musical language provides the compass.

This is a riddling journey, disorienting and contradictory. Juxtaposed epochs and locales force us to make new connections, or fall off the path: “I have left the long cursive of your body to stroll the Miocenian grasslands . . .” By merging geologic and human histories, Mahrer creates a unique chronotope that includes the urgency of now: “Bludgeon the tundra into units of heat” and “Each moment carries extinction in its mouth.”

Although it reads like a dream, the odyssey is rooted in the actual: “Once hands were spoons joining water to water, then knives dividing sand from stone.” The poet also fuses unexpected components: a “curfew of satin and wool” and “the body is a composite of ribboned hair and narrow stairwell, serpent and hasp.” Home, the starting place, seems to be the body of the woman left behind: “Remember how the skin gathered around the milky hollows of her knees?”

Surprises abound: “cuffing our ears like iron kisses,” “small squalls wrapped in papier-mâché,” a cellist’s “wilted pearls.” We, like the campaigners, are constantly off-kilter. Images of words written and spoken remind us of who and where we are, as in these lines from “Franciscan Mélange:”

“The comma’s slow knife.

Don’t speak yet. It is imperative we not speak

the notspeak spoken here.”

In addition to the abundance of phanopoeia, the aural imagination feasts as well. The footsteps of this journey are playful and euphonius, as in “the loose syntax of warm rain bees fuzzy with jazz/nuzzling the river azaleas,” and the following lines from “Glossolalia:”

“Loontongue

muttertongue

idiom savant . . .

Wrist glyph

phoneme of hip

ibble of lash . . .

What is the saying

that in the saying

reveals the underword?

The compass is felt in the throat; the sound-play prompts connections, and ecstasy.

Mahrer has said that he heard these poems over the course of fifteen years. He was rewarded for his patient listening. By the end of the forty-two poems, we realize this is the record of the poet’s apprenticeship. These songs of shifting perspectives, longing, and grief, change the reader, too. More aware that the deepest past is always in us, we, along with the poet, are ready “to love the small quiet of the present tense.”

 

Published in Cider Press Review, Volume 19, Issue 3.

Gwynn O'GaraGwynn O’Gara’s books include Snake Woman Poems, and the chapbooks, Fixer-Upper, Winter at Green Haven, and Sea Cradles. She served as Sonoma County Poet Laureate from 2010 through 2011.

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