Magnalia, Mara Adamitz Scrupe
Eyewear Goggles, 2018 £6.00
A torrent of experience
‘Encolpion’, I discover from Wikipedia, is a breast ornament worn by an Eastern Orthodox Bishop, and having an ikon at the centre. A ‘Sunflower Encolpion’ is an easy item to imagine, and it is the title of Scrupe’s sensual poem, the fourth in this collection.
An ‘encolpion’ is mentioned again in the last stanza as a place in which a holy relic is secreted. In between, there are images of antique Persian plant-form, Dutch tulip-mania, padded trousers made from quilted, soft, old oriental fabrics, Norse plunder, and a great deal more, which it would be difficult to unravel without the internet. Even with that help there’s much that is obscure to this reader.
But that’s beside the point, because the language on the page is rich and diverse, and bears the person to whom the poem is happening through a torrent of experience. This ranges from the homely (‘a woman brings the thread / to the needle a man brings the needle / to the thread’) to the botanical (‘she’s thinking / like a petal a pistil she is / flower-full ochre-pollen-smudged / density’), all the more so because this poem — like most of this collection — is printed in irregularly indented lines, and full of long, white spaces, and furthermore without capitalisation or punctuation.
That this layout is not wilful or irrelevant is clear when any of the poems is read aloud. As with Dylan Thomas, the language is musical in itself, almost without any reference to meaning. But when I read the poems aloud, I found that the hesitation of the long spaces sometimes created emphasis, sometimes ambiguity, and that the extreme enjambment permitted a fluidity of syntax which did not obscure the (mostly) cheerful voice of the poet.
The imagery is often down-to-earth, or descriptive of handicraft, as in ‘The Dyer’s Hands’ which deals with the techniques and materials of dyeing with plant-sourced colours.
And sometimes the virtuoso mode that Scrupe adopts permits access to topics which are graver or more fragile, and which may not easily be visited more directly.
Pebbledash and coincidence
Mara Adamitz Scrupe uses gaps of various sizes between words, as well as italics, ampersands, indentations and line breaks. But she writes almost entirely without punctuation (with the exception of apostrophes and the occasional colon). So the reader’s brain instinctively grabs individual phrases as they arrive: little units of meaning.
I experienced this as a sort of pebble-dash, a storm of fragments that gradually adds up to a whole. Magnalia means, basically, ‘marvellous things’, and the verse method encourages their discovery bit by bit.
The title poem includes what was for me an odd coincidence. Its full title is ‘Magnalia (Instructions for Sewing Simple Slippers)’. The epigraph also supplies necessary information: ‘Carrie Buck was the first person involuntarily sterilized ... and committed to the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded’.
But my coincidence lay in finding a detailed reference to an ancient marvel: the Lamb of Tartary (if you don’t know what is is, do follow the link). Very recently I encountered this self-same creature in a poem by Peter Jarvis. I had never heard of it before — and now — twice in a month!
In Scrupe’s poem, the image of the ‘vegetable lamb’ is a marvel that somehow offsets and corresponds to the awful damage inflicted on Carrie Buck.
Here is the concluding stanza of ‘Magnalia’:
full in wonder of nature’s magnalia
the magic lamb’s wooly umbilicus revolves
flexing & sprouts a living sheep that eats to death
the grass path around it reborn again & again
from its own fallen seeds/ epitomes:
astonishing intricacies & simplicities
At first the phrases in the stanza quoted above are shrouded in mystery. But bit by bit (especially if you know about the lamb) it adds up, and the connection with Carrie Buck clicks into place. A painful fact is ‘reborn again & again / from its own fallen seeds’, even though the judgement of Carrie was as wrong as the presumed existence of a lamb that grows on a plant.
Poor Carrie Buck. Her sad story offers a lesson, as the poet says, ‘that shouldn’t be but is & / keeps & comes home again & again’.