REVIEW by Pippa Marland

NWR Issue 98

The Mind-Body Problem

by Katha Pollitt

An interval of twenty-seven years divides the appearance of American journalist, essayist and critic Katha Pollitt’s debut volume of poetry, Antarctic Traveller and the publication in the US in 2009 of her second collection, now brought to British readers by Seren: The Mind-Body Problem. These accessible and plain-spoken poems certainly have an air of authority and quiet sagacity which suggest the kind of maturation and distillation of lived experience which that time span might allow.

In a 2009 interview with Adam Gopnik for Granta, Pollitt talks about the themes of the collection, focusing on what she calls ‘the central human predicament’: “Not just death, decay, the passing of beauty, unrequited love, unrealized ambitions and all that, but the poor fit between human consciousness, and, well, I don’t exactly know what to call it – reality? We want life to have more meaning than it actually possesses.’ In The Mind-Body Problem she not only articulates the Cartesian divide of the title but gradually explores that poor fit between consciousness and reality, gently satirising our attempts to locate the meaning we long for.

Nowhere is this disjunction more evident than in our relationship with the past – always, for Pollitt, a past that never really was, at least not as we enshrine and preserve it. In ‘Mandarin Oranges’ she describes an intense urge, prompted by familiar packaging, to eat a mandarin orange, though ‘I can’t remember if I even liked them’. They are suddenly symbolic to her of ‘youth and joy’ and at the same time emblematic of our failure to see the past accurately: ‘we can’t keep faith with the past, / in the end we love it because it is the past.’

The seeds of this failure to ‘keep faith’ are found in the evasions of the present – for example, the mothers in ‘Playground’ coming to a realisation of the changed nature of their lives, and all thinking; ‘Mama, was it like this? / Did I do this to you?’, but, in the absence of a Mama to ask, never voicing that realisation to each other. ‘Collectibles’ shows Pollitt’s powers of observation at their most acute, as she conjures the pathos of novelty domestic objects at a jumble sale and translates their heart-breaking message. Redolent of ‘a land that thought it was / so full of love and cosiness and cheer’,

why should
they pain us so somehow, who know so well
it wasn’t like that, not really, even then?
Is that what they have come so far to tell us?
That we lose even what we never had?

At times the unravelling of the past can be quite devastating. The restraint with which Pollitt hints at tragedy makes it all the more poignant. In A Chinese Bowl she briefly retrieves the innocent happiness of her childhood self – a young girl curled up on the floor writing a play – while the light falls on a ‘metal cabinet / which hides no folder labelled / “blacklist” or “Party business” / Or “drink” or “mother’s death.”’ These sinister folders foreshadow an adulthood in which ‘all rooms seem strange, the years all error’ and she longs for an infusion ‘that would renew/ my fallen life’.

‘Fallen’ is a word which is refracted differently as the collection progresses. The book is divided into three sections, ‘The Mind-Body Problem’, ‘After the Bible’, and ‘Lunaria’, with the short second section, as the title suggests, basing its insights on reworkings of bible stories. It features comic revisions in which we see God wondering if he’s made a mistake by vaporising the entertainingly vital residents of Sodom and Gomorrah, Job driven to distraction by the trite platitudes of his people, and Adam and Eve departing delightedly from Eden with even God secretly pleased that history can now begin.

One of the functions of this second section is perhaps to mitigate the sadness of the first – to give a new inflection to our ‘fallen’ state, and to prepare us for the insights of the final section of the book, which offers us small moments of redemption and a kind of phlegmatic acceptance of our compromised meaning, aging and death. In ‘Maya’, Pollitt remembers her naïve youthful enthusiasm for calling everything illusion: ‘now I believe it, everything is illusion / and yet is no less everything’, and in ‘What I Understood’ she enjoys the perpetual small miracle of ‘how in a world whose predominant characteristics / are futility, cruelty, loneliness, disappointment / people are saved every day / by a sparrow, a foghorn, a grassblade, a tablecloth.’

In the final poem of the collection, ‘Lunaria,’ the poet, having moved through the spring and summer of her life, turns bravely towards the autumn:

I’d like to meet
October’s chill

like the silver moonplant
that bears toward winter
its dark seeds

a paper lantern
lit within
and shining in
the fallen leaves.

I found the calm resolution of this conclusion – the luminosity of this fall – profoundly and unexpectedly moving. Perhaps it is the deceptive plainness of the poetry which makes the cumulative emotional heft of the volume come as something of a surprise. Reading the whole collection left me with the lingering feeling of having been on a journey from which I emerged subtly changed – sadder, wiser, but somehow ‘lit within’.

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previous review: Ras Olaf Harri Selwyn
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