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Equivocal Blessings

By: Mary Carol Moran
Reviewed by: Melissa Dickson Blackburn
Negative Capability Press, 2009
$16.95, Paper

Strewn with frequent sonnets and the occasional villanelle—as well as historical, literary, and personal reflections—Mary Carol Moran’s Equivocal Blessings delves into the penance we all must pay to the loved, the lost, the dead, and the remembered. Divided into three sections—“Clearing,” “Breathe With Me,” and “Strong Bones”—Equivocal Blessings features diverse approaches and narrative themes including fictionalized speculations on the love life of Edna St. Vincent Millay, the daily chores of a contemplative Buddhist monk, and bare-boned biographical poems about the poet’s own marriage, children, parents, and, yes, even her dog. Each poem is distinctly Moran with a conscious, unsentimental, and uniquely female point of view.

Moran is a professed fan of the Spanish poet Pablo Neruda. The influence is apparent in the surrealist villanelle “Purgatory 17,” which takes as its two historic sources Salvador Dali’s work of the same name and Dante’s “Canto 17” from the “Purgatory” section of the Divine Comedy which begins, “Call to remembrance, reader.” There can be no doubt that this poem and the entire collection are an act of remembrance investing in recollection of self and of other. Dali’s original image features the elongated limbs of a spider-female, the mythic Arachne, stretched in the act of being and perhaps of remembering, as described in Moran’s concluding lines: 

        “…keep going, keep going. When I was 42, Dali painted me- 
        stretched to breaking, poised, aching, no place to flee.”

As a loosely modified, contemporary villanelle, “Purgatory 17” is highly successful at translating a classic and often rigid structure into a natural, effective voice. It is neither a slave to the form nor to the personal concerns of the poet, but a lovely blend of the two stretching (pun intended) the style to fit the poet’s intention. The repeated cadence flows beautifully, and the choice of a villanelle is impeccable for this poem about the challenges of a woman and a mother in midlife.

Another of my personal favorites from Equivocal Blessings is the elegiac poem “Chambers Dictionary.” Moran’s love of words and the power therein is beautifully rendered in this work, which serves as both an homage to language itself and to her late father, to whom she has dedicated this volume. Played out in a single 270-word sentence, “Chambers Dictionary” is a charming portrait of Moran and of her father and is, to my reading, the definitive poem of this collection. In this celebration of the blessings that remain long after their equivocal trappings fold inward toward memory and, too often, toward loss. Moran writes: 

        “[A]nd because words are the thread I hold, 
        the yarn I unravel to knit 
        twenty-six years, the dictionary 
        is as pliable and green 
        as if I held it still”

The poem concludes with a bittersweet salute to a father, a cherished book, and the love of words each represents:

        “they are both lost, 
        they are both gone, 
        they are both here.”

A beautiful book, cover to cover, Equivocal Blessings is itself a blessing from a remarkable, accomplished, and sustaining Alabama poet.

It is worth noting that Moran’s publisher, Negative Capability, has committed to reprinting her earlier collection Clear Soul in the coming year. Jan 2010

Melissa Dickson Blackburn is a visual artist, poet, mother, MFA candidate at Converse College, and a marketing executive who lives in Auburn.

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