A review of Laynie Browne's 'Scorpyn Odes'
A sense of community is everywhere apparent in the poetry world — the desire to share and promote what is offered widely, and to make of poetry a means to transform minds, hearts, and social practice. Fortunately or unfortunately, it can be difficult in all this to find a space quiet enough for a contemplative spirit, an exploratory sense, in the poem, of working through what’s real in how to respond to a world in and through language. For me the value of this is much more than personal, more than the pleasure it affords. I find in it the basis of thought and action, their solid foundation and ultimate sustainability. So while I try to read as variously as possible, it’s always this contemplative work that makes me feel most alive, most at home, and most as if I am getting what’s needed.
This brings me to the work of Laynie Browne, one of our finest poets working in the mode I am calling contemplative poetry (contemplation: “to mark out a space for observation”). By which I mean not necessarily a poetry that is contemplative in the religious sense (though yes, inescapably there is also that in Laynie’s work) but rather in the compositional sense, that is, writing itself, language itself, composition itself, as a form of contemplation, marking a place for observation. Of her own work Laynie has written, “Silence and the invisible are often my imperatives. I aspire to transcribe the illegible, and to hear all that may be compressed within silence or utterance. Which silences, deliberately placed, make a text more audible?”
Scorpyn Odes is a roughly forty-page text which consists of two series in alternation. One, titled “Scorpyn Odes,” is comprised of short poems, all of which are about scorpions from every possible angle. Their history and natural history. Remedies in case of stings, possible medicinal uses of the venom, mythological and astrological reference, etc. A former resident (but not a native) of Tuscon, Arizona, a place in which one’s home is not infrequently habitat for actual scorpions, Laynie (who during the time she lived there had young children) had ample occasion to encounter with some trepidation these strange and storied creatures. Naturally she decided to get to know them not only in the flesh, so to speak, but also by tracing their existence in language, that is to say in the human mind, in books, myths, references of all kinds. A process of working out a relationship, of creating some familiarity, no doubt, against fear, with these rather creepy and intimidating animals, which, we learn, are more than 400 million years old, and therefore carry an enviable genetic pedigree: they’ve been around a lot longer, and possibly more peacefully and successfully, than we have, in their intense silences, lurking secrecy, and straight-ahead sincerity. The opening poem of the book is a quiet lovely ode I’ll quote in full, because it serves as a kind of entry point to all that follows.
I prayed the dictionary
I asked pardon of dream
I feared scorpions in their silence
And walked each morning
into the rising mountain
I vowed not to become
the nullifying silence
But to nullify the other
paralysis being born
To speak with the elevated
precision of silence
From the marrow of consciousness
The living aspect of which appears solid
but isn’t complete
until we have left
the word, the mountain
and the scorpionic premises
This lovely statement, if it is a statement, could be about everything we fear, including death and chaos. To face it, confront it, in prayer (which requires language, the dictionary) and pardon, opening up to the dream (not denying the dream with rationality and technology) and naming the fear, then walking toward it, vowing to speak, but speak in a way that includes silence, the beyond-language, to overcome the paralysis of fear that leaves us frozen. Good advice for these terror-filled times!
Fear paralyzes and creates a silence, a block, unlike the silence, beyond the word, which is creative and precise, contemplative, vibrating in the very marrow of consciousness, which can’t happen until there’s a willingness to leave everything behind, having overcome the fear of departure (see below) and nullification. Which ends up being what this book is about.
The remainder of the book builds on this initial resolve to plunge in, rather than retreat from, the weird and the fearful, to explore — through the soothing and deep encounter with language itself (and the self, construed necessarily through language, if you go deep enough into it to notice) — what it is we are walking toward as the “squares upon calendars / looked back at me” (9).
The second series is titled “Departure.” It consists of prose poems, generally a half page or so in length, on the titled theme. Departure, as word, as concept, as feeling, as thought, as intimate experience, is also a wider and deeper question. What is departure? From what to what do we transfer? And isn’t any departure a death, and does departure ever cease, aren’t we forever departing each moment, off balance continually in the process? All this is suggested and drawn forth in these wonderful prose poems, that include, intermittently, the disaster of contemporary life, in all its exhausting detail — from which we would most passionately wish to depart, if we could.
Possibly no school shootings, possibly funding for National Science Foundation funneled from the war is over. Possibly sleep and not underwritten. More flow into you and less treacherous waters becoming migrant — not at all workers — but the word client was changed to person. The word weapon was changed to mediation. You’d say meadow was a stretch. Go ahead say meadow. Say minimum wage. Say possibly nothing is forgotten. The street across the street and the globe across from that with dental care, insurance. Go ahead, say you'll wait in the meadow for all of that, streaming … (10)
The form of the writing in both series is improvisational, exploratory, paratactic, rich in information and detail, juxtaposed with inner reflection, a groping toward a kind of redemption through engagement with the intense experience of writing itself, which the reader feels, as if composing the poem herself, in the reading of it, following it along, as lights within consciousness go off and on (lights, not necessarily useful ideas of or thoughts about the world, just lights). So that the reading itself is, as least for a reader like me, an exercise in opening to a cheerful possibility in living, as if accompanied by a contemplative voice that’s both inside and outside one’s own head.
I mentioned above that Laynie is an engaged spiritual practitioner — in her case mainly of Jewish meditation. That is, silence is for her more than a concept of language-limit; rather, it is an experience, a lived exploration. She writes,
Elemental to my work is this attempt at intimacy requiring corporeal wrestling as well as ethereal and intellectual engagements. The intimate does not necessarily imply the personal, but it does imply attempts at a collective sense of personhood. I aspire to exit the confines of single voice, single perspective, and single consciousness, breaking with the illusory notion of the individual, and fixed concepts of perception.
The themes mentioned here are all in evidence in Scorpyn Odes: intertextuality, the sense of address, confrontation with the unknown, and moving beyond a single voice or perspective into a collective sense of voice. For me all this adds up to an open poetry which neither pressures nor informs me in any particular direction. Rather it gives me the sort of profound companionship I need to keep me going in an impossible world. This is what contemplative poetry is supposed to do, and why it is so important.