His own shine, her smooth inscrutable
A review of Pattie McCarthy’s ‘Marybones’
I’ve heard people gasp when they first see the cover of Pattie McCarthy’s Marybones. They’re responding to the fabulous and impossible breasts (one in particular) in Jean Fouquet’s 1452 painting. This Madonna is pornographic: anachronistically Barbie-dollish and as gray as a corpse. And the infant on her lap is also morbid, made of a kind of marble, oddly jointed, like a marionette or a sketch for a Pixar character. Like most paintings of Mary, the predominant hue is blue.
There’s nothing human in this picture — nothing that could include you, you who have adored this image in various media — stone, glass, paintings, medallions — forever. Imploring this one woman who is tight with the Trinity: please intercede. Save him, me, them, us. And help me to be more like you — quiet, impenetrable, long-suffering — ye who are unlike all other women.
We turn the page: “The passive banter of saints.” Now we are in new territory — the world of postmodern poet as mother, as uninhibited Catholic, as barker at a carnival of Marian attractions, as chief mourner for all the Marys who’ve ever suffered; poet as historian and meticulous glutton. Mary only had one son, but it seems she had many daughters, including the author of this romp through two thousand years of Maryology.
In Marybones, McCarthy suckles and sees, reading everything from her children’s faces to Samuel Beckett’s letters in the light of the Mother of God. This is unabashedly emotional documentary poetry, triggered and informed by pretty much everything: the work of Ted Berrigan, Frank O’Hara, Lorine Niedecker, a fugitive NPR broadcast, Social Security Administration records, paintings, art histories, encyclopedias, an online timeline of the Salem witch trials, and Babar the Elephant (and more — see the note on sources at the back of the book).
McCarthy might have written this book for me, though she didn’t know me. Or else the history of “afflicted girls … possibly mary” who “was in line when FDR shut the banks” (10, like my own grandmother Mary) is so general and vast that it only seems like McCarthy has divined the story of my particular Irish girl in the mosh pit of Marys.
Though individual women are invisible and disposable, “Mary” is everywhere. “Mary / was surprised her son was given CPR since he was shot three / times in the head” (24); Mary is the name of a caulked ship (45); Mary is nursing in every possible and impossible position and medium (56); Mary is suffering:
mary is pregnant when the mayflower
leaves leiden mary gives
birth to a stillborn son only ten months
after burying an unnamed child
birth to a stillborn son while still at anchor
in plymouth harbor Friday 22 december
1620 mary already
has two daughters named mary (34)
I devoured Marybones the way I devoured Susan Howe’s The Birth-mark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History and My Emily Dickinson — prose of historical inquiry and imagination feeding some hunger I didn’t know I had. But Marybones is poetry, and the tone is hectic, partly because it was written in the digital era. Here the Internet flickers like a wacky votive. It’s as if Billy Preston were playing the piano with one hand while fingering the electronic organ with the other (all the while listening to hear if the baby has woken from her nap). There’s a lot going on most of the time. And then, sometimes, things slow down, as in the sisterly lyric “maudlin” (a lullaby that includes the word “intertextual”).
Though apparently housebound with small children, McCarthy travels, taking us from vesperbild to pietà, from a Stabat Mater to ebay, from Goya to pie charts of fecundity and mortality in the 1700s. The cult of the Virgin and the imperatives of the Church have yielded millions and millions of babies; half of them seem to be mentioned in this book. Marybones is a maternity ward or a cemetery in a time of plague, a ship packed with emigrant women named Mary. Milk flows and dries up in sentences and lines, a kind of blue wash throughout the book.
There’s a lot of color in the book, because there are a lot of paintings and icons. Lots of names, lots of marvelous Latinate vocabulary and repetition, a kind of syntactical rocking (“rock & hum”).
After reading and loving Marybones, I reread Marina Warner’s Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary. Mary’s singularity always made her seem lonely to me, and sometimes made me feel lonely too. Now when I think of Jesus’s mother, McCarthy’s “horizontal collaborator,” I will think of George Oppen’s Of Being Numerous and Edouard Glissant’s “consent not to be a single being.” There are so many of her. So many of us.