Book Review

In A Passion According to Green, Mark Irwin shows his gift for making strange and poignant fables from the stuff of contemporary life, stories that foreground and complicate our notions of perspective. Take “Open House,” for instance:

      The realtor is whistling through the spacious rooms.
      Everything’s so new—floors, carpet, paint—as if just
      There are cookies on the Plexiglas tray. —Coffee and tea.
      There are flowers on the mantle. She wants us to feel at
      A puzzle of a forest, unassembled, lies on an end table.

Even in the banal, everyday setting of the open house, Irwin hones in on the mythic details: everything is “as if just created,” a strange little Eden whose garden is a jumble of puzzle pieces on a table. Everything is constructed to create the illusion of life, and yet it’s exactly that attempt at normalcy that makes the open house so artificial, so uncanny. Having set this tone, Irwin seamlessly moves into the quietly surreal:

We pass a small box to each other. The last one
sets it down. Inside is a model of this house. We
all peer down a long way to see. Now a child lifts
the roof off. Inside are figures just like us. Our breaths
make clouds. This is the way our lives start. This is the way they go.

People in a model house looking down on people in a model house . . . We’re split between subject and object, creator and created: like gods “our breaths / make clouds” in the sky of this little world, above these little people “just like us.” We understand, of course, that these are just models—yet at the same time, the poem suggests that we too are just models. It’s not hard to imagine ourselves partway down a chain of infinite regression, with bigger people in a bigger model house looking down on us, breathing our clouds, while still bigger people look down on them—“This is the way” our lives go at every step.

Such disorienting perspective shifts appear throughout A Passion, as in “A Tiny Cage”:

A Tiny Cage,

I’d found in the grass, and inside the cage
an even smaller mirror that I removed through the hinged
door, and in its polished square I saw a human
likeness leading others away from a city’s tall monuments,
moments in our history. They too each carried a tiny cage
like this one, shimmering with light, as though filled with something
living. From what were they
fleeing as they sang of skyscrapers, bridges, condos,
malls, and billboards? And each one
carried an even smaller blue screen flickering with memory
or hope for that shining toward which hesitantly they kept walking.

Even more than “Open House,” this poem insists that our position remain unstable. Where do our everyday lives fit within this chain of cages, mirrors, and screens? The point is that it doesn’t much matter—wherever we may fit, we are just one level of an infinite pattern.

Though skilled at using such devices, Irwin doesn’t depend on them. Another highlight of A Passion, “Two Horses,” discusses questions of perspective in a very different mode:

There were two horses, something I’ll never forget.
I stood between them both and the soft doors of the earth.
It was early morning, their breaths steaming above frost.
It was late evening and their teeth chopped the tall grass.
It was winter, spring, summer, fall. I touched their manes and sweaty
flanks. There were two horses.

Here, Irwin’s speaker takes the opposite approach, insisting vehemently on the stability of his perspective at the same time that the world refuses to cooperate. He insists that “I’ll never forget” these horses. As such, we expect them to anchor us within world of the poem. Yet immediately the time of day changes; the seasons change and change and change again. We can briefly hold onto images—the steaming breaths, the sweaty flanks—yet they quickly pass and all we can say with certainty is that “there were two horses.” The poem continues:

                                    They walked away slowly then turned.
One began to age rapidly while the other grew young. Two horses.
—A shoddy thing and a colt. I built a tall house between them,
where craving the earth I’ve lived ever since.

Now not even time behaves as we expect. Instead, it runs in opposite directions for the two horses. What else can the speaker do but build a house, build a life between the horses, his and our only points of quasi-stability, and go on “craving”?

Irwin’s book is full of fables—a talking cat who meets an ancient and growing mouse, three-inch-tall people who can only speak after eating grass—and they work wonderfully. Even when working in a realist mode, though, Irwin’s work is full of a haunting magic. Take “Safety Pin,” which begins:

I must have carried it around for 15 years
in my shaving kit, hoping to use it sometime
but never did until one day on a plane this guy
next to me asked if I happened to have a safety pin?
Sure, I said, and stood up to take it out of my luggage.
He’d torn his shirt—no big deal—but it was on the shoulder
where he couldn’t reach.

These opening lines are so purposely prosaic, so characteristic of tediously quotidian stories (wow, tell us more about your safety pin! On his shoulder—imagine!) that we’re set up to expect nothing interesting to follow. That makes what comes next all the more surprising:

                                    I held the pin up like a tiny sword
then went to work, bending toward him as if to whisper
something. “I’m dying,” he said, stone-faced.
What, I said. “That’s why I’m going to Cleveland, a final
experiment for my shot kidneys.” Dialysis? I asked. “For years,”
he said, holding a long cord, looped at both ends
on his lap. He fingered it like a rosary. What’s that? I asked.
“It’s a bow string,” he said. “I’m an archer.” Wow, I said, leaning
back toward him, tucking, re-pinning the tear, then patting
his shoulder. “I started with a toy bow my father gave me,
rubber-tipped arrows and all. Now I’ve been to tournaments
all over the world,” he added, then his head dropped, even though the plane
seemed to be climbing as the sun broke through the clouds, catching
his body. Slowly I slipped my finger through one loop of
the cord and I pulled and he pulled till it was taut.

This stranger, like every stranger, has his own life filled with its own joys and fears and pains. From the archer’s perspective, this is a story about mortality; from the speaker’s, it’s a story about finally getting to use his safety pin. These two lives come briefly near each other, but their separation remains palpable—their connection is a mended jacket, hardly significant compared to a failing body.

And yet, for one lovely moment, the speaker and the dying stranger work together to do what Irwin’s poems do so well: to bridge, however briefly, the gulfs between perspectives, to pull the cords between us taut.

About the Reviewer

J. G. McClure holds an MFA from the University of California-Irvine. His poems and prose appear in Best New Poets, Gettysburg Review, Green Mountains Review, and Birmingham Poetry Review, among others. His first collection, The Fire Lit & Nearing, is forthcoming (Indolent Books 2017). See more at