Review of Immortal Sofa by Maura Stanton, University of Illinois Press 2008.
By Meghan Brinson
Don’t expect the rockabilly sensibility of “Magician’s Hat” from HFR #42 out of this collection. Instead, Immortal Sofa offers quiet meditations on creature comforts, travel, and work with the unerotic intimacy of a cotton bra. Through metaphysical poems like “God’s Ode to Creation,” and “Cimetière Virtual,” the collection reveals itself as a study of the feeling of distance, artifice, loss and deep dissatisfaction that suburban complacency hides.
The content of the poems establishes the unquestionably domestic nature of the collection: trips to the vet, memories of the nursery, traffic, board games, morning sex, opera, cocktail parties, organic co-ops, cats. The poems reveal daily life with the indulgent lack of self-consciousness of “The Lovers,” in a Saturday Night Live skit. But instead of mocking the self-content, out-of-touch professorial figures, Immortal Sofa compares the privileged domestic, so far removed from world tragedies like the Indonesian tsunami, to artwork. In “Abstract Art,” and “Cimetière Virtual,” art becomes a way of reimagining a world left unsatisfactory by the removed clockwork God revealed in “God’s Ode to Creation.” Try this line on for a punch in the gut:
“At night I see them sweat and yearn, dreaming/ of the one thing I never made, and won’t. (God’s Ode to Creation”)
No wonder the speaker of “Abstract Art,” yearns for “Canvases/of pure color, untouched by shadow/ like the landscape of eternity, and wish[s]// [she] could step through their panes of light/ and melt into nothingness.” Or the speaker of “Cimetière Virtual,” who creates a place to mourn her father where “The sky’s blue forever/in this perfected space.” The artist is necessary to fill the gap, or attempt to, between what exists and what is needed.
Art is a way both to avoid feeling and to heal those who recognize the intrinsic failing of the world at large. The suburban world of college professors, cats, and hand-me-down couches is transformed into a collective artwork--the characters of the college town come together to create a world more perfect than the larger, tragic world, and to find solace there from the great tides of loss that constantly threaten to swamp their creation. The speaker of Immortal Sofa cannot completely ignore the world outside as death haunts her comfortable creation: her cats, her mornings in bed with her husband, her afternoons on the couch that her mother-in-law kept preserved by plastic. A large chunk of the collection consists of elegies, several more are lists of things lost forever: youthful belongings, sonatas by deceased composers, disappeared civilizations and destroyed basilicas.
Throughout the collection, Stanton tackles subjects that a less experienced writer would avoid. She recognizes this in her poem about a teddy bear, “Poem on a Forbidden Subject,” where she describes advising beginning writers to avoid certain overly sentimental objects or clichés, and then proceeds to write that exact poem. She has not one, but two elegies for housecats in this collection. But Stanton’s secret is the deep dissatisfaction, the menacing shadow of reality that casts itself across the comfortable and familiar world she chronicles. Why do people stultify in the tepid waters of neighborhood cocktail parties, academia, pleasant coffee shop revolutions? Read the long poem for the failed German spy Herman Goertz and the young Irishman who witnesses his last pathetic moments. The difference between what is expected, what someone strives to be and what they finally become is tragic. The recognition of this tragedy is nothing short of violent:
“the mason, stepping slowly back, / Grasping what he’ll try to put in words/ For the rest of his life, though no one listens, / His young face broken open like a geode.
The response is that recorded in “Abstract Art,” to remake the world, and unlike the works of great masters that Stanton mentions in the poem, to avoid mimesis: instead of trying to capture reality, she wants to create something radically different. And that’s the heart of Immortal Sofa, the contrast between what is comfortable and soothing, and the constant imposition of a world which refuses to be these things.
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