Ever since J. Alfred Prufrock measured out his life with coffee spoons, transcendence in
poetry is no longer identified with the Romantic sublime. Instead, for the post-modern poet,
transcendence is often the endurance of everyday life – human perseverance against the
punishing crush of the commonplace. In Marion Boyer’s The Clock of the Long Now, the
transcendent is her subject. Yet, it resides not only in our capacity to endure our everyday
lives, but also in the affirmation of our lives against a vast and arctic backdrop. “Sit beside
me,” the speaker says in a poem entitled, “Cold”, “so we might appear/anything but
frozen/an eyelash away from zero.” Anything but frozen. Here, as throughout this collection,
Boyer arms us against a kind of extinction by reminding us of our own humanity and worth.
What seems to threaten the worth of the figures in these poems – what seems to keep
them always living “an eyelash away from zero” – is their struggle to press on in life beyond
their own personal histories. As the speaker knows in a poem titled, “February” -- a poem
that recalls the miscarriage or still birth of a child -- “You can bathe your mind in distraction,
pull images/around yourself like a terry robe, set up a chair and lean/against the delicacy of
its frame; I am aware of these/ things, the armor distance provides.” However, as we hear in
a later poem, “Antarctica”, no matter how hard we try, our personal histories follow us like
dogs on our trails:
Despite the things we rely on
To cover our mistakes –
Onions, snow, flames,
there’s no escaping history.
Every chink and crevice
of the world is filled with it.
If there is anything to learn from nature, according to Boyer, it is perseverance in the face of
events that we can not change. “I Suddenly Respect the Daffodils,” she proclaims in another
poem, “folded by a weeklong snowstorm, their heads pasted to the dirt./ They held their
starch for a day after I cut and put them in water./ The bulbs, even now, store up for another
April.” From daffodils that reseed themselves in a tragic cycle of destruction and
regeneration to “the fly inside my window believing there is a way out” to “cheerleaders in
their tiny skirts who kick up/ their legs even though the score is hopeless,” what Boyer
celebrates is the stoicism of the one still standing. And what is the source for this stoicism?
For Boyer, it appears to be a Buddhist-like resolve to live in the present and not to be dogged
by our pasts. The effect of this resolve is to recognize that every moment is to be beautified,
sublimated – and ultimately, to realize that the large questions of our lives are being
answered in the small conversations:
In Small Conversation
about purchases or soap
people count on plums
or peculiarities of weather
to sand the hardwood
between them with each word.
A woman sells me stamps,
wishes me well, and warns
I am in her head and now she’s in mine.
Later in this same poem, the speaker sets aside the old dualities that have haunted us
throughout this collection – past and present; death and resurrection; loss and hope. What
emerges instead is a new mythology that identifies spiritual renewal with the most subtle
A man behind the fish counter
wraps paper around salmon
in a crisp way, frowning
over the scale so I know
his concern for me
is whittled down to pampering
the silvered flesh he hands across the glass.
Later, I’ll unwrap the package like a gift.
What this poem signals is a paradigm shift that, in turn, resolves the book’s central
tension. There is a shift from living in a world of dualities to living in the present moment,
what Boyer calls “the long now”. In the book’s opening poem, the speaker asks, “Do you
know/ a translation for eyelash that means moth?/That is the language I’ve lost.” What has
been lost is not a way of saying, but a way of seeing. The clock of the long now offers a
correction to our vision because it makes the present resonate. It releases us from our
captivity in a temporal scheme, and in turn, frees us from the requirement to see our lives as
the sum of previous events. In Buddhism, the clock of the long now is the middle path: the
condition of enlightenment, which in itself is a release from the straight-jacket of the
temporal , the mundane, and the personal. It is a realignment of our own histories with the
histories of all humanity. The cold and cosmic backdrop that Boyer offers us again and
again in this collection reads like her rendering of the collective unconscious. Where this
vast backdrop might diminish us, in Boyer’s universe it becomes a staging that consoles us:
Behind a curtain called rain Through language that is mythic in tenor, Boyer casts us in a mythic universe, at once
atoms overcast one another,
link and mate, each molecule
knits a new door. You know
how the world is. It spins.
liberating us from our personal histories and magnifying them. The Clock of the Long Now
is a beautifully wrought and deeply human meditation on our obligations to one another and
to our pasts. What Boyer grants us in these poems is a course to follow – if not to Elysium,
then certainly to our shared humanity.
Reviewed by M.B. McLatchey, April, 2010.
Excerpted from The Spoon River Poetry Review, Summer/Fall 2010.
The Clock of the Long Now
Review by M. B. McLatchey
Author: Marion Boyer
81 pages; paper, $15.95