Switchback Books 2019

Switchback Books 2019

A Review of Irène Mathieu’s Grand Marronage — June 21, 2019
by Sherif Abdelkarim


A Grand Anti-passing

Grand Marronage, Irène Mathieu’s second book of poems, throws me into a restless state. By this collection’s end, you’ll want to take her cue and voice yourself, make something of your not so slow-burning earth. Not one to flinch at impending entropy, Mathieu meets problems of identity, domestic violence, and cultural abuse with an impatient energy that will inspire readers to help her fix them, to make a difference, beginning in their lives.
Like her first collection of poems, Orogeny (Trembling Pillow Press, 2017), Grand Marronage affirms Mathieu’s discipline as a careful listener. The pediatrician-poet lends an attentive ear to her own ancestry with the aid of her grandmother, Louise Marguerite Llopis Mathieu, whose life-fragments from mid-century Louisiana she half-assembles: the memories won’t tell you everything, not at once. Each poem leads you into the next as you scale Mathieu’s sophisticated familial trees. The climb begins in New Orleans, the work’s locus, but branches across the hemisphere to encompass the Dominican Republic, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Winchester, Virginia, and farther climes. Despite the work’s utter variety, readers keen on comparing Mathieu to herself will note this collection’s impeccable coherence of voice and theme. This time around, she plunges deeper into the hot water of race and its sad-strange cultural and institutional tides in America. Power doesn’t neatly reproduce itself in the world Mathieu brings out: Exactly who or what decides which life’s fulfilled, which isn’t, goes unaccounted for.
Grand Marronage comprises a philosophical survey into the experiences of women and persons of color in America. The poems pose dangerous questions, all unanswerable:

            when did you stop thinking of me? (“love poem”)

            did you come with a shipful of ghosts

            or a shipful of hope?

            are your children’s children’s children

            haunted, / dreaming    or both? (“how to rain”)

            How does one belong? (“myth iv (of my husband’s father)”)

            where are you from (“butterfly effect”)

            why do you talk like that (“still life with pedigree”)

            and what of my surprise when someone I think 

            wants me dead or very far away

            speaks kindly to me. what does my surprise say? (“to know a thing”)

Many of these questions—there are many—point to defamiliarized things plucked from everyday life and force us to reevaluate our relation to them:

            have you ever heard of such a country

            where a woman passes for an oak banister

            and a man passes for a leather-bound Bible,

            or a book of law? (“a foolish controversy over the color of the skin”)

What exact analogy would Mathieu like to draw between these objects and a given skin? Perhaps these objects metonymically stand for the institutions that allow for or encourage the phenomenon of passing to take shape? Are natural skins meant to evoke the foundational in society? The poet may not answer these questions, but she doesn’t ask them in a vacuum, either, embodying them in three central figures across four frames: Louise Mathieu, mid-1900s; Alice Dunbar, early 1900s; Louise Mathieu, late 1900s; and Irène Mathieu, early 2000s. AD’s personal trajectory parallels LM’s—both having been raised in New Orleans as women of color—as her creative streak parallels IM’s—both being dynamic writers with an activist bent. Mathieu acutely envisions her grandmother’s childhood and young adulthood, preserved in anecdotes (“it was impossible to go anywhere in New Orleans in those days without being something sweet, from the looks we got” (“sweet things”)), splashes of creole (“koté mò gin/you cannot find...” (“[translation]”)), recipes and family meals (mechanically rendered through Mathieu’s medical lens) and a series of “myths” (untidy screenshots from a family history Mathieu looks back upon not nostalgically but with that same mechanical lens). Mathieu values not her own genetic heritage for its own sake (like everyone’s, it’s all mixed up), but rather invests in the cultural heritage passed down by a preceding line of sad, nice women.
Not one to neglect her seniors, the collection additionally pays homage to a variety of women and artists, especially Alice Dunbar Nelson, whose abusive marriage to Paul she juxtaposes with her literary and social struggles and achievements. The cameos of Monica, Youn, José Saramago, Richard Siken, and others help articulate Mathieu’s project as the artist’s responses to this question of community and being in America. In keeping with her critical stance, she settles within the uncertainties of identity, the ambiguous space where one’s essence and embodiment tensely cohabit, with the latter held suspect across the poems as a false marker with hazardous ramifications; pondering our phenotypes’ impacts on our privileges and deprivations over cadavers one anatomy lab, the narrator wonders, “is it true that when we are least a person we are most material?” Beyond her commitment to the politics of identity, then, Mathieu remains fascinated by human ontology itself in relation to the world.
And to words. In this respect, Mathieu’s medical training animates her poems with a shared descriptive strangeness. Like the Metaphysicals, her rich conceits pursue idiosyncratic courses to reveal whole histories and futures incubated in our cells. The metaphors can get New Agey—“I was nest. I was egg. I was gill. I was breath” (“past life”)—but mostly the continuities between person(s) and world successfully merge into magic-realist/surrealist-feminist images, as is poignantly depicted in “maron (circa 1735)”:

            girl in a swamp

            getting too free for her body

            lets her knotted stomach turn to wood,

            her skin to bark //

            the barking gets closer... //

            the common fig does not normally grow in a swamp... //

            from her not-hands drop ripe figs.

            they split open in the rain.

            the dogs have arrived.

            they lick her bark, confused, chew the fruity pulp. //

            the men catch up, scratch their heads. //

            the girl has escaped.

Mathieu’s specialty with words comprises her knack for synesthetic tropes, evoked in homophones and double entendres. A [slave?] girl, who shot a man, metamorphoses into a fig tree to win her freedom from merely human existence. The figure of the fig factors into Mathieu’s preoccupation with various guilts in later poems, including an ambivalent disenchantment with adopted religions, or the problem of privilege at the enslavement of one’s familiars; Mathieu’s having “known good backyards, hoses for drinking and dancing / around, dogs as guardians, rope as just rope,” complicates what it means to be a flourishing woman of color in contemporary America (“self-portrait as a series of bent zoning laws”). This complexity is spelled out in deceptively simple terms in “nomenclature,” where a speaker muses on her father’s love for figs:

            he said the Spanish first brought figs across

            an ocean littered with fig seeds

                        plentiful as fish eyes   in their wake:

            un higo heritage, many-named –

            black mission       alma        common

            negronne         desert king      tiger

            adriatic                   strangler        black weeping

            san pedro   red lebanese        persian white

            each fig named for a particular type

            of suffering or belonging.

As for the fig trees, “the blooming majority is anonymous,” and like men, like the father of this poem, his teeth full of fig skin, “there are murderous / figs that will creep around / the waists of their arboreal cousins until / the cousins turn to dust in the quietest death.” This wouldn’t be the first time Mathieu draws readers to the table for some flesh and blood, nor the last, nor her sole expression of privation.
While it retells the past and seeks to redress the present, Grand Marronage regularly rehearses the tired games of dispossession we not always know we play or consent to; it captures the weariness of not having the mouth or heart to speak against one everyday injustice or other, endured by dint of one’s existence. For every telling, we’re told, hides its “twin opposite, a not-telling (“archival”). I would’ve underestimated this law’s scope were it not for Mathieu’s keen senses, her strict tone, which deftly mirrors her style and syntax—blunt. Readers will enjoy their fill of absurdity in and between the lines, but they won’t experience the irreverent, laugh-out-loud comedy of, say, Victoria Chang. But like Chang, Mathieu seriously interrogates American identity, inclusion, and exclusion, with her situations so openly absurd and devastatingly unironic that they unsettle more than relieve. I find Mathieu’s earnestness compelling, since her rare occasions of wry—I won’t say comic—relief hit you harder when they find you.
I recommend Grand Marronage for all readers of American poetry, history, or culture, especially beginner readers of contemporary poetry frustrated by the genre’s pseudo-profundity and anti-rhythm. This collection rewards its audience with challenging free verses whose patterns and meanings resolve themselves at the end of every stanza and poem, which collectively reveal new orders at the turn of every section, by the end of the work, and upon a second read, when fresh meanings are unearthed. I write this as a student of fixed meters; nevertheless, I can’t help but admire Mathieu’s subversive experimental schemes, even her simple refusal to capitalize sentences in all but two poems and one poignant letter. No matter your background, you stand to gain from this read. It will cue you to do something refreshing. Life isn’t only short, it can also be wasted and is often, tragically. As Mathieu discovers for herself from her dives into the past and current hopes, it can also be rich. Mathieu has opened an ambitious door. May it lead you to the doors of excellent poets, may it lead you to more Mathieu, to her forthcoming poems, paintings, fictions, dramas, her children’s literature, name it. She’s just getting started.