With Marie Howe’s Magdalene being my favorite poetry collection of late, I find a comfort in reading other’s reviews of it — as though I’m in dialogue with the authors, as though there’s a secret book club in my mind. I’m choosing John Ruff’s review to discuss, mainly because I love his anecdote about old religious women giggling in a chapel while Howe reads a monologue poem about penises, but also because it’s entirely involved with the text — both its presence on the page as well as its allusions. If I sound, in this review, as though I’m being hard on Ruff, it’s only because I respect his work and hold it to high standards.
John Ruff separates his review of Mary Howe’s 2017 poetry book Magdalene into three parts, opening by discussing the current renaissance of Catholicism in 21st century literature. He mentions other writers with similar non-secular styles, such as Franz Wright and Mary Karr, then gives a short synopsis of Howe’s body of work.
In the second part, he opens with a description of the image of Mary Magdalene in Renaissance art — specifically, Donatello’s carved wooden statue of her. He points out his fascination at her profound ugliness and agedness, which is unlike her representation elsewhere. Finally, he brings up the book he’s reviewing, justifying his digression on Donatello’s Magdalene by loosely comparing the two.
He begins his analysis of Howe’s work with a stylistic deconstruction. He makes it clear that he believes it is due to the stylistic choices — simple grammar of syntax and diction, along with lineation, spacing, capitalization, etc. — that “nothing distances the reader.” He breaks down its structure, mentioning that the double spacing “giv[es] more light and space to the language [and] creates more time and encourages greater attention.” Through these means, he makes the claim that the book’s persona Magdalene “seems to take great pains to be understood, to make plain and present what she thinks, sees, and feels.” He provides specific poems in the collections as examples, pointing out the choice of capitalization as a break in the pattern to create emphasis in her poem “The Affliction:” “as if Nothing Had Happened.”
In part three, Ruff gets into the meat of the review; he hits us with the important questions that any decent review should attempt to answer: “So who is Howe’s Magdalene? And what’s the matter with her? And what happens to her?” It’s also in this last section that Ruff attempts to further justify his earlier art history digression, stating that Howe’s Magdalene too exists in dialogue with the traditional, biblical character (though this seems an obvious statement, based on the mere title of the collection). However, he also remarks that, though she’s a traditional character, she’s also uniquely of her time-period, that is, 21st century America. She has mental health, medication, and relationship issues. Ruff brings in Augustine when he calls her plight a case of “disordered desire,” a smart juxtaposition in his point of Magdalene transgressing time.
After this analysis, he goes back to the beginning of the book to provide evidence of his claims, working in order from the epigraph to each early poem that follows. He points out that the epigraph is from an apocryphal gospel, setting the religiously transgressive tone for the rest of the book.
Ruff discusses one of my favorite poems in the collection, an untitled, completely italicized vignette, calling it a tender and redemptive scene of lovemaking. While I can see how one can get that take-away from the poem, I also find it grossly simplistic. Here’s the poem:
Looking down at him my tears fell onto his chest
and he looked at me with such pity
raising his hand to wipe my cheek
before he wrapped his arms around me and pulled me
down to the bed so he could press inside me deeper
To me, this is an incredibly sorrowful scene, laced with (and perhaps veiled by) the erotic. The speaker has a difficulty with her mental relationship between sex and sadness. This poem takes place as a man is inside her, and she’s crying. He doesn’t pull out and ask what’s wrong, but continues — and goes deeper. To me, this represents the speaker’s belief that she’s a lost cause; and the man is reiterating to Magdalene that she’s hopeless, or at least he’s telling her that he can’t help her, that only she can help herself. That he’s using her body, and she’s complicit in it. She gets off on it, further emotionally complicating the passage. If Ruff understands my reading and still considers the passage redemptive, I’d love to hear his definition.
And then, my favorite part of Ruff’s review: the penis monologue. Personally, if I had written this review, I would’ve opened with this part that he closes with. It’s captivating, funny, and transgressive, instantly drawing in any reader with taste. I understand though that, if not to open with it, the next best choice is to close with it. Here’s the passage:
“I was in the second row, behind a group of middle-aged women who turned out to be the book club of a friend and colleague from Chesterton, Indiana, a little town near Lake Michigan and the steel mills. As Marie began to read, you could hear the chapel go quieter. You might have heard my heart as it began to beat louder and faster. Not too long into Marie’s reading of the poem, those ladies in front of me began to giggle, and then to laugh, which gave the rest of us permission to laugh, to relax and let the poem do its good work, and give us its good news. Their laughter was like a benediction they conferred upon the poem, upon Marie, upon all of us there, those middle-aged ladies enjoying heartily their first penis monologue, the best, most human and holy they will ever hear.”
Aside from certain digressions, my beef with the ordering of ideas, and the friction between my stubborn views and his, John Ruff’s review of Howe’s Magdalene is a highly satisfying read. He’s clearly a great writer and pays close attention to the ways in which words work when placed next to, around, below and above each other. It’s clear that he cares about poetry, which is the most I can ask for in a great review.