May 27 2022
Poetry review – DEAR LIFE: Rosie Johnston peruses a prize-winning pamphlet by Maya C Popa
Maya C. Popa’s American Faith (Sarabande, 2019) won the 2020 North American Book prize, her Dear Life won this year’s PBS pamphlet prize and this coming November, W. W. Norton is to publish her Wound is the Origin of Wonder. After degrees at Oxford and New York universities, Popa is currently a Goldsmiths PhD candidate working on ‘the role of wonder in poetry’ and is Poetry Reviews editor at Publishers Weekly.
I enjoyed Popa’s 2017 pamphlet The Bees have been Canceled (sic, New Michigan Press) for its elegant density, what Mark Doty called ‘quick-as-dread sweep’ in so few pages. Part 2 of ‘Uranium in English’ gives you a flavour, here in full:
I teach my class the problem/solution structure. Many logical questions are asked, several logical solutions proposed. What about the squirrels? I ask my students. Whole neighborhoods annihilated in Hiroshima, classrooms like cartoon shadows in Nagasaki. We agree one violence is greater than the others, but a string of tiny violences makes the largest possible.
This lean writing may have originated with the US in its sights but resonates across the world. Popa seems at times to write mainly for other writers and academics. In ‘The Master’s Pieces’ in the same pamphlet, for example, she says: “Every poem has something trying to escape/ by a tear the length of its idiom. A name that can be vanquished // by anaphora (who doesn’t envy that?).”
Now that Popa lives and works in the UK, does she offer a different slant? The plus and minus of this life of ours – is it worth it, what makes it worth it, why? – is a big theme for a little pamphlet and Dear Life carries it beautifully. Popa writes more personally now, combining zest for life with pain too heavy to carry alone. ‘Prayer’ is a chat with God:
Those evenings I was sure I’d die, you were teaching me to live; I see that now. And the gravity of it all you did not say but left me like a map for the intuiting. … I knew enough to know what I was doing. So often I thought that I was clever, God, and could see the spirit moving within me like a school of fish darting under ice.
A ‘lit-up scan of my left breast’ seems to have brought this near-desolation and her resilience:
I’ll tell you something I’ve never told a god: all my life, I’ve been ready for a fight, been ready for suffering. All my allowances came and spent and all the coffers magically replenished.
In ‘Reading’ (as in palm-reading, rather than the town west of Slough), we are in the company of a psychic medium:
I thought she’d offer something conventionally hopeful, direct me to a trapdoor I failed to see.
Instead, what the medium sees is “a past-life connection; / two lives, she amends, at least two.” What is the poet to do with this information? The poet’s terse reaction is almost comic at first: “What do I do? / Thread the past through the present’s eye? // Ask that we meet in the blasted heath between?” The medium’s response is matter of fact, leading to a perfect closing couplet:
She said, no, no, that won’t be necessary. Just forgive him: first for living, then for dying. What are days for if not to let go of days.
‘Fife’ is a venture into nature writing, a welcome stillness: “Listen: everything is listening / to the North Sea retreating / like a voice before sleep.”
‘Dear Life’ closes this pamphlet and is rightly the title poem, not least because of its witty title. Is Popa herself looking back? It could just as easily be Cleopatra, Emma Hamilton or de Beauvoir, beginning with these powerful stanzas:
I can’t undo all I have done to myself, what I have let an appetite for love do to me. I have wanted all the world, its beauties and its injuries; some days, I think that is punishment enough.
We are in the irresistible company of secrets and regrets. Reading aloud brings out the gentle emphasis on “and” in the middle line of the triplet above. The poem goes on to explain “you fish in open water / ready to be wounded on what you reel in.” The “nightmare” – presumably love gone wrong – gets thrown back into ‘the dark water’, making way for this extraordinary image for the pain of the connection that’s been “Catching my tongue suddenly on metal, / spitting the hook into my open palm.” Caught in the paradox that romantic love, the subject of so many comedies, feels blessed by destiny to the lovers themselves, the poet addresses life itself:
Would you loosen the line – you’ll listen if I ask you, if you are the sort of life I think you are.
This is spare, honest writing, knowing rather than cynical, and as sharp as that fishhook. If you would like more, there are recent poems in bath magg and The London Magazine, a discussion of this poem ‘Dear Life’ in the Guardian’s Poem of the week (21 February, 2022) and Wound is the Origin of Wonder due for publication in the autumn.
Rosie Johnston‘s four poetry books are published by Lapwing Publications in Belfast, most recently Six-Count Jive in 2019. Her poems have appeared in Snakeskin, The Phare, London Grip, Culture NI, FourxFour, The Honest Ulsterman, Mary Evans Picture Library’s Poems and Pictures blog, Words for the Wild. Her poetry is anthologised by Live Canon, Arlen House, OneWorld’s Places of Poetry anthology, Fevers of the Mind and American Writers Review. She reads her poetry widely, most recently at Faversham and Gloucester Poetry Festivals.