Book Review

I have been discovering and rediscovering for years the inspired and nuanced literary art of Maureen Seaton, but not until I read Fibonacci Batman: New and Selected Poems (1991–2011) did I fully recognize the range and depth of this prolific poet’s mind at work. Seaton’s notable opus, forthcoming from Carnegie Mellon University Press, includes selections from seven previously published books, as well as eight new poems. The collection is ordered so that the reader first encounters the newest poems, then leaps backward in time to the earliest poems, then moves forward again toward the current moment. Instead of a linear progression from past to present or present to past, as such new-and-selected volumes are typically arranged, Seaton’s contents are recursive, spiraling, cross-referential, and frequently meta. As I read, I found myself thinking often of Eliot’s Four Quartets: “We shall not cease from exploration, / and the end of all our exploring / will be to arrive where we started / and know the place for the first time.”

Consider the first poem, “Babel,” and the last poem, “Art,” which mark the full circumference of Fibonacci Batman. In “Babel,” the speaker explains, “I was used to the way language fails us,” and yet, knowing full well these limitations, she admits, “I’ve often succumbed to the search for the perfect word.” So this is a central paradox of her poetry, and perhaps of poetry in general—the way we pursue with great passion something we are certain cannot be found. In “Art,” Seaton reminds us that, though there are no perfect words: “[a] word / is three-dimensional. Its colors / range from red around the base / to another deeper red / at the top of the word / like a cherry or a volcano.” This way of seeing that poetry makes possible adds a synesthetic complexity to language and other abstractions. More is connected than we realize: “I lose a ruby in New Jersey, / find it on a finger in Illinois.” Seaton concludes of poetry and, also perhaps, of humanity: “There is something here to save.” She writes, “I write.” The act of writing is affirmed in Seaton’s final line as a gesture toward redemption—the writer herself both redeemer and redeemed.

In Seaton’s work, I always find a spiritual imperative, but these poems are not the didactic commandments of a preacher, they are the ruminations of a mystic’s capacious, uncommon mind. What does a mystic seek after all? Isn’t it wisdom born of intuition and contemplation? Isn’t it ultimate unity with some larger, unknowable power?

I think it is Seaton as a mystic who perceives—“sometimes / she would float on a turquoise wave and imagine herself / a pearl in the cup of its enormous palm”; a mystic who reflects—“In this way, I forget who I am and who I came here to be in this place of / sorrowful mysteries.”

It is a mystic, I am certain, who—in a favorite poem of mine called “The Red Tide”—elucidates the poet’s transmogrifying powers:

She will be as mutable as seawater.
She will be as malleable as sand.
She will notice that the moon is a pearl, a seed.
She will hang upside down in the mangrove swamp. The moon will grow
full beneath her.

And in the end, “Her DNA will ravel, prehistoric.”

Seaton’s postmodern mysticism is as primal as sex, as captivating as numerology. Feel the double root of ecstasy (both sexual desire and spiritual transcendence) in a poem like “Harlem,” where

             the gospels inside
of sex and breakfast, soft
dishwater in the sink, how
we broke the glass of old
reflections and sprinkled ourselves
with the joy of salvation

[…] so hot the sun in our hearts.

In “After Violence, with Binaries and Fibonacci,” Seaton’s anaphoric insights multiply as she tells us,

1. I like to think there is a universe I invent and chart.
1. I like to think there is a universe I invent and chart.
2. I like to think that the language behind numbers is a sly one.
3. I like to think that language spirals infinitely.
5. I like to think that everything is infinite in both directions at once, huge and tiny.
8. I like to think I co-create creation along with my mail carrier, my train
conductor, my lover, my children, and our dog, Sweet Jane.
13. z(new) = z2(old) + c. I like to think.

What is this riddled language the mystic speaks? It is more specific than poetry, for there are more poets, I think, than there are mystics. For me, Seaton’s poems are koans, paradoxes that demonstrate the inadequacy of mere logic in order to provoke enlightenment by more intuitive means.

Is this not a koan? “I still / sin though full I be.”
And this? “oh / there is no lover like a panicked lover”
And this? “Absolute Zero / is where it all begins, the clean slate. Walk out now, you’re freezing.”

Seaton is a brilliant, patient cartographer of cerebral and celestial landscapes. She refers to “a map of my soul’s coordinates,” to a “theory of reality [that] implies / a folding of atoms, humans, tea cozies inside a seamless universe.” But these poems, these koans—like the words that comprise them—are never two-dimensional, never less than a world unto themselves:

I hear the songs that sway over zero, the hum as Fibonacci nears infinity. To be alive after violence a woman may follow the spiral in either direction. Her footfalls are her gauge and her deliverance.

Sometimes, these footfalls are also ours.

I hear in these poems the voice of a woman singing as if her life depends upon it, a cartographer brave enough to name even that which she cannot name: “I like to think that the gender of 0 is 00. That if gender exists it is / unchartable.” Seaton’s project is a map which curves intricately, reflexively, and suddenly becomes a globe.

About the Reviewer

Born in Seattle in 1979, Julie Marie Wade completed a Master of Arts in English at Western Washington University in 2003, a Master of Fine Arts in Poetry at the University of Pittsburgh in 2006, and a PhD in Interdisciplinary Humanities at the University of Louisville in 2012. She is the author of Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures, (Colgate University Press, 2010), which won the Lambda Literary Award in Lesbian Memoir; Without: Poems (Finishing Line Press, 2010), selected for the New Women’s Voices Chapbook Series; Small Fires; Essays (Sarabande Books, 2011), selected for the Linda Bruckheimer Series in Kentucky Literature; Postage Due: Poems & Prose Poems (White Pine Press, 2013), winner of the Marie Alexander Poetry Series; and the forthcoming Tremolo: An Essay (Bloom Press, 2013), winner of the Bloom Nonfiction Chapbook Prize. Wade is the newest member of the graduate teaching faculty in creative writing at Florida International University in Miami.