'The heart's vast and cratered purpose'

'In June the Labyrinth'

Photo of Hogue (left) © Sylvain Gallais.

In June the Labyrinth

In June the Labyrinth

Cynthia Hogue

Red Hen Press 2017, 76 pages, $17.95 , ISBN ISBN 978-1597090377

Cynthia Hogue’s In June the Labyrinth turns from the meditations on grief and loss Revenance illuminated with tact and grace to the dimensions of mortality itself. The book’s protagonist, Elle, at once a distinct personality and a compilation of formidable women, suffers, recovers, and dies by the series’ end. Although Elle, as the epigraph tells us, knowingly seeks and seems to find the labyrinth through which she might receive “a miracle,” Elle’s struggles and victories as she travels out of this world aren’t really the book’s primary subject. Instead, the speaker’s endeavor to understand and somehow to tell “the unwritten volume”[1] that is Elle (and the figure of Beloved m(O)thers), becomes the labyrinth’s most immediate correlative. Described as a serial poem, In June layers its individually titled segments around points of concentration through which the speaker pursues moral and emotional clarity, about herself and the women who activate that investigation.

Both literal and figurative, the prayer labyrinth keeps the poem’s spiritual and material endeavors in view while resisting the usual trajectories implied by “path,” like maturity and spiritual advancement. The poem “(“amazing”)” corrects the common conflation: 

Mazes aren’t labyrinths
though often confused with them.
Only one is for pilgrimage. (23)

Created to substitute for actual travel to Jerusalem when the journey was impossible for most, the labyrinth is indeed a religious instrument, but other distinctions are important to Hogue’s contemplations, beginning with the prayer labyrinth’s suggestive imagery and convoluted pattern. In drawings and aerial photographs, the labyrinth looks like a combination of brain and flower with a circular room at its core. While a maze designates separate entry and exit points, as well as many false paths leading to dead ends, the labyrinth has one portal and one elaborately coiled, looping double passageway that leads, ultimately, to its center. As “(“the labyrinth’s experience”)” advises, 

some feel a sense of confusion
as they remember there is only one path in and one path out,

but you will not get lost.
you will feel lost. (56)

The object of a maze is to escape (or solve) it as quickly as possible, but as these lines suggest, the labyrinth’s purpose isn’t its completion. Instead, walking the labyrinth deliberately invites disorientation, even fear, in order to loosen perception from the known and visible. The repetition of “lost” combines with the missing initial capitalization and retention of periods that would correctly divide statements to stress the sought displacement. This “fading” of syntactical directions mimics the circulation and interconnection of Hogue’s mobile, open-ended account of spirituality.

This vision of spiritual challenge is sometimes effected by repetition within and among poems, but also through grammatically irregular binding of pronoun cases and points of view. As in this passage from “(“the labyrinth’s experience”),” the speaker often slips from one form of address to another: “they” becomes “you” before the poem doubles back to its initial stance as an instructive pamphlet on approaching the labyrinth. Strategies like this also operate to maintain links among the poems, layering and compacting readings rather than propelling narrative. For example, the (grammatical) forms of “confuse” — “confused with” to mean “mistaken for” carries into the “confusion” of the later poem. Through “confusion,” “(“the labyrinth’s experience”)” returns to “(“amazing”)” where the clarification between maze and labyrinth interrupts a story about Elle’s way of coping with heartbreak (she makes her garden into a maze but calls it a labyrinth). Together, these interlocking features keep In June grounded in Elle’s speech and writing; her mind stays the material of the book’s devotion alongside its metaphysical investigation. Entering, yet in some ways countering, mythopoetic territory, Hogue continues the kind of boundary-walking theopoetics practiced by writers like Denise Levertov in its “promise to ‘look up,’ as in traditional quests for divinity, [but] …  finding ‘infinity’ inhering (or failing) in earthbound, human relations.”[2] In “(“the labyrinth’s experience”),” the emotional body grounds the religious exercise through its instruction to proceed “thinking of different people as you. / pay attention as they rise and then let them go” (56). The body should extend the “listening heart” while it releases thought. In its intentional physical movement and the abandonment of mental intentions, wandering the labyrinth’s brain-flower design carries Hogue’s pilgrim to a horizon of self-awareness where one mind may meet another in the course of an ordinary day. 

This spiritual exercise — “(“the labyrinth’s experience”)” — could come off as barefoot and dreamy, but everywhere else, the labyrinth and its attractions appear through clear eyes. “(“to label something”)” remarks wryly on the conversion of sacred places into tourist traps when the speaker explains having skipped “The Crypt” at Chartres because “Alive costs a pretty penny / to see The Crypt now” (32). Likewise, the speaker’s presentation of Elle, while thoroughly loving, is far from sweet idealizations; instead, it offers various and recurring glimpses of Elle’s interesting persona. In “(“symbolic”),” “Skeptic Elle” calls the speaker on her feminist speculations about the labyrinth’s link to goddess religions, supposedly signified through its resemblance to the vagina: 

Where did you read that?
I stammered, vague, “Goddess studies”
(which I hadn’t studied),
or some such stuff I had.
Quiet, vehement voice:
I don’t believe you. (53)

Distinguished in italics, the doubled “I” foregrounds Elle’s voice, sharpened by her occasional severity, while revealing the speaker’s ruminations on the biting exchange. Elle’s voice, rather than her appearance or achievements, is part of the everyday mystery of access between people, and we see in this exchange an unlikely (and funny) bond between a (much younger?) speaker who likes to be shocking and Elle who doesn’t tolerate it. Many poems similarly tie inconsequential conversations to philosophical conclusions in gestures that expose the fleeting, roundabout way one person comes to know another intimately. Precise behavioral details, like sneering at flowery thinking and a love of food, loop through the ontological abstractions of this formally irregular series to articulate (and to ask) what mortality means. Each recollection of Elle turns a new channel in the speaker’s consciousness; they are fulfillments of her own ability to love, forgive, or laugh at herself.

These vignettes complicate the boundaries between self and other, which complicate death’s location, its arrival as well as its imminence. In June invokes epic status through its categorization as a long poem, the profound topic of a formidable woman’s death, and the context of a spiritual journey. Hogue, however, refuses epic grandeur: love, not exaltation, and bereavement, not catharsis or, in the tiresome parlance of our times, “closure,” are the poems’ story, a quest that is inconclusive, still lived and walked around in, without a clear start, climax, or resolution. Bending the contours of the epic likewise questions many of its givens. With Elle’s death, for one, what besides her body departs or remains that doesn’t already? The collective voice of these poems shows that Elle is and will remain a path the speaker follows. The poem “(“alone in love”)” wonders exactly what will change:

There’s no way around this problem.

I must seek a solution to the geometry
that my future has unverged with yours.
I am not dead but silenced. (48) 

Again, the italicized lines double the “I,” but in this poem, the conversation between Elle and the speaker combats deeper, more personal narrative tendencies. The speaker’s desire to solve the problem of living without Elle seems both articulated and answered by Elle’s participation in her own thinking, as part of the speaker’s mind. Hogue’s familial mysticism resembles Patricia Dienstfrey’s in The Woman Without Experiences, in which the daughter-speaker both inhabits and is inhabited by the daily thoughts and deeds of her mother, Beatrice. Like Dienstfrey’s Beatrice, Elle is sometimes asserted as a stern but caring super-ego (“There’s no way around this problem”), both a conversant and a conversation with divine implications. Merged with the speaker’s mind but “unverged” from this dimension, Elle becomes a destabilizing geometry, a “solution” in which the love, knowledge, and forgiveness of a person expands through another’s perpetual attention to her.

Convergences of forgiveness and love form not only in the material present of the relationship but also extend unpredictably into a chronic future of memory and contemplation. In some poems, Elle is addressed as though her death is imminent; elsewhere, she is recalled as a character summary, as if dead a long time and remembered without pain; in others, she is part of a long-term but urgent plan to figure out a complex philosophical problem. “(“verge”),” a poem that corresponds to “(“alone in love”),” begins with standard dialogue format, “Elle says:” to introduce ensuing lines as lifted from her exact words and made into poetry:

“What I mean to say is paradise,”
“but let’s speak for the moment”
“of a garden the edges of which”
“are geometric or even”
“labyrinthine. Grass verges”
“punctuate the straight lines and”

“loops of” (51)

Visually referencing Alice Notley’s The Descent of Alette, these quotation marks isolate each line, but do not dissect lines into phrases. Whereas Notley’s punctuation works “to situate the poem within the orality of epic” in order to impede its “structures of speech,”[3] Hogue’s mark the borders of the poetic line and the lyric experimentalism, often feminist, that has tested them. Here, they seem to stress the frustrations posed by inconsistencies of emotional and chronological proximity and the attempt to create a dimension in writing that permits their peaceful, unequal cohabitation. The quotation marks act as the poem’s verges, edges that sort Elle’s statements, some represented elsewhere in italics, and make visible the speaker’s close inspection of them. Even in this poem, however, various re-presentations of words, phrases, and direct discourse shatter the lyric’s traditional claim to “timelessness”; these words are attached to multiple times, listeners, speakers, and readers. Through such temporal and formal jumbles, In June suggests that the labyrinth poses a dizzying but ultimately more accurate way of thinking about time and mortality, that each one of us may be considered a labyrinth walking a labyrinth, a winding and unwinding of losses and recoveries merging as “the timeless stream” of human understanding, not transcendent of time but continually altered by it.

These paradigm-twisting notions of mortality flit along linguistic and geometric borders to disrupt spatial-temporal relations defining subjectivity, especially the figures of interiority and expression, depth and surface most familiar in idiomatic use.  “(dehors et dedans”)” casts these paradigms as an act of mistranslation:

Outside is inside
I misread Bachelard’s French
imagining Elle belonging when

life’s excluding her.
She will message me,
I think. But I cannot harbor 

her. She is inside herself,
sliced from unreal, real,
as no from not. (31) 

By mentioning Gaston Bachelard, this brief poem reframes Elle’s life and impending death as matters of inhabitance and the experiential self as an unbounded architecture requiring newly imagined poetic vocabularies. We hear the speaker scrutinize metaphors of inhabitance and social order: she imagines Elle excluded, no longer “belonging” to life, and becoming an outcast or outlaw the speaker “cannot harbor.” The final stanza, with stunning simplicity, confounds the translation of Elle into “insides” and “outsides”: she is a topography of conceptual and material experience “sliced” like letters from the words they form. The modesty of Hogue’s work sometimes obscures her formal skill, but notice the arrangement of pronouns in the line, “her. She is inside herself,” wherein the enjambment summarizes the mobility and complexity of identity glinting in the smallest, most common words. The object and reflexive cases on the “outside” of the lines bookend “She is herself,” honoring the referential interactions of even simple statements while illustrating the preciousness of Elle as a subject to and of the world. Poetry about loss frequently observes language’s limitations and distortions, but as this poem and this line demonstrate, even personal pronouns take on real emotional dimensions under the scrutiny of the poetic line. Importantly, this poem also champions misreading as an imaginative resource and suggests different avenues of awareness, perhaps charged with the Lacanian idea of the Real, the pre-self self “sliced from unreal” to which one may never return but around which all self turns. Here, again, negation acts not to nullify but to revise ideas of death. Elle’s relocation “as no from not” removes death from its position in the signifier chain as the opposite of life to a condition so strange it seems fictional, a state as-yet-imagined, “unreal.” The labyrinth’s center, which is curiously called its entrance, might act as an antidote to the “maze” of modern selfhood and reorganize tropes of subjectivity.

Attention to the intricacies and irregularities of words, as Hogue explains in the Notes, drove the pace of the project. She describes her research on labyrinths as “gathering language like a bricoleur … in fits and starts” (77). With this jagged, selective, and unhurried mode in mind, the stitchery of hyphens in poems like “(“a troth”)” and “(“cunning”),” for instance, seems to reify that mixture of sought information and unexpected materials transmuted into poetry. The hyphen’s appearance and function, however, differ from poem to poem. In “(“a troth”),” hyphens denote the incorporation of all kinds of writing into personal association, from Chaucer to travel brochures, while “(“cunning”)” applies the hyphen like a bullet point in a list of unfinished clauses that proceed like an extended syllogism. These clusters of keyboard intrusions roughly flaunt the powers of accident (like typos and remembrance) rather than smooth them out into allusions. Conspicuous interventions by extra-alphanumeric characters also insinuate Hogue’s belief “that truth is revealed in any error” (79), a wonderful plea against correction.

These marks have formal as well as thematic functions, especially because of their irregularity. Only the parenthesis and quotation marks wreathing the lowercase titles adhere to a consistent pattern; the rest of the symbols are actively disarming visual elements, maybe, in part, because of their comings and goings. Many poems don’t feature them, so a reader can’t grow accustomed to and ignore them. The oddly, repeatedly encased titles qualify the authority of the titles themselves, preventing their full separation from the series. Visually, the layers of punctuation seem to hush by covering the titles, but in writing or talking about them, the quotes and parenthesis are cumbersome, demanding precision and translation. These competing effects keep in the open the precariousness of the poems’ contents. This shakiness doesn’t concern the accuracy of what happened or what was said, however; the recycling of remarks and events unsettle, again, spatial-temporal position — the where, when, and how often of experiences. Such overt, awkward disruptions in the lyrical trajectory insist on the comparison of words (and poems) to labyrinths and foreground the labyrinthine narrative of Elle. Added to the accessorized titles and hyphens are backslashes, brackets, equals signs, and angle brackets that generate further a sense of friction and disorientation — they keep the poems feeling lost (or released) although they aren’t lost. In “(“L is for love”),” the most poetical topic in the world is retaught through destabilizing interpolations:

            The heart’s vast and cratered purpose==

Union of weighted, the rooted
            and fulcrum==Spread out
like wild thyme, heal-all, forget-me-not

Love’s accident’s
glittering wand waves==hosts==
            the delicate-eyed/the dowering (20)

Doubled up, the equals signs separate descriptions and defer the answers they’re expected to introduce. They seem an assault on metaphor, the most familiar “equals sign” of literary tropes, and a criticism of metaphor’s frequent application to love. The most familiar, “the heart,” is returned to its literal purpose as an essential organ, a “cratered union” of “rooted” muscle and flexible extensions. Yet as the poem seems visually to pull apart the lumpy organ that’s needed to live from the idiom that means love, the equals signs also resemble an elasticity or durability of metaphor, compounding with herbs and flowers recognized for their hardy, sprawling root system. This swirl of imagistic, affectionate stuttering suggests grasping for explanation and emphatic, deeply private, uncontrollable associations. The concluding backslash tips between equation of elements  (“the delicate-eyed” with “the dowering”) and their mutual exclusivity (either/or). Both Elle, phonetically “L,” and love are the “vast and cratered purpose” that slips from sense and syntax; they are magnetic, elusive, and disorderly as memory.

The infusion of remembrance and revelation at which Elle is center insinuates less that poetry grants immortality than that much of our mortal learning of each other happens through the mind’s revisionary labors. A simple, improbably moving poem, “(“the green way”),” witnesses a recurring scene from Elle’s childhood, as if the speaker had been present. The book’s rotating temporal and vocal registers culminate and create depth among and within the individual titles, and here, they become concentrated in a vision that recognizes the labyrinth reaching retroactively through Elle’s life. On her daily walk to school, Elle is distracted by “warmth from early sun/on her face” and admires her feet in new school shoes: 

                        Their shine attracts
her gaze. The way she knows to walk
on her own is past the cemetery,
the small, unpainted houses
                        among the trees, green with June. (58–59)

In this unfinished idyll, the speaker-daughter restores Elle to the comfort of her young, healthy body, pleased by sun on her skin and shoes and strong with confidence as she skirts a neighborhood graveyard. This different walk of faith, I think, becomes the miracle Elle prays for at the book’s start. She is part of another’s imagination, and, as Hogue shows us, imagination “unverges” love from the limits of this world.

1. Cynthia Hogue, In June the Labyrinth (Pasadena: Red Hen Press, 2017), 19.

2. Romana Huk, “Women’s ‘spiritualities,’” in A History of Twentieth-Century American Women’s Poetry,ed. Linda A. Kinnanhan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 300.

3. Julia Bloch, “Alice Notley’s Descent: Modernist Genealogies and Gendered Literary Inheritance,” Journal of Modern Literature 35, no. 3 (2012): 11.