Shannon K. Winston
Inner Life: Elizabeth McLagan’s In the White Room
“To me a poem is a sensual experience,” poet Elizabeth McLagan said in an interview with The Bitter Oleander (15;2). She added: “the development of [her] inner life was something very private […] subversive” (ibid). McLagan’s forthcoming collection, In the White Room, creates perceptual and imaginative realities through intimate daily details, which imbue this collection with an inner life of its own. As the title suggests, it draws on architecture—rooms, houses, walls—to explore a poetry of space and striking visual images. Paradoxically, the fixity of the architecture grounds McLagan’s collection, while also allowing her a great mobility in exploring themes of memory, loss, and the process of writing itself.
The opening poem invokes a room as “a space that holds or can hold something,” “a suitable scope or opportunity,” “something capacious,” and “leeway, tangent, meander” (11). In the White Room draws on all of these definitions. The central questions of the collection include: how does our environment shape our perception of the world and vice versa? How can seemingly small engagements with fancy and the imagination shape our daily realities?
McLagan’s poems are tenacious, yet delicate, surreal, and dream-like. They unfold slowly and revel in the minute details of the perceptual world. In the poem, “A Line Drawn, a Thread, the Pages of a Wall,” for example, the speaker begins: “The tin stamp box is holding tenderly/a yellow pear. A fir grows through the floorboards” (15). The poem’s strength is in its unusual, detailed images; it likens, for example, patience to sand and shadows to hearts. In “Biographica Lyrica,” the speaker merges the metallic images of trains with “their heavy meanings” with “[her] ghost life” (45). The poem—and the collection as a whole—works by layers of association that make the reader see and understand the world differently.
Sight is therefore central to this collection, which grapples with how to capture imperceptible moments, which escape our notice. In “In the White Corners of a Room,” the speaker describes “the spot inside the eye which bends light,/a white stone cataract” (16). Later she invokes “the air caught between the blind trees” (ibid). Rather than a handicap, blindness or the difficulty of seeing occasions moments of reflection and questioning that open up imaginative possibilities.
Similarly, “River Bottom” thematizes the importance of the body as a site of questioning:
For how long
and why do I see myself out of
my own body, cool and solid and bare
my own human face exchanged for the skin
of water? (36-7)
The body out of its environment, submerged in water, becomes a metaphor for renewal and change. It captures the collection’s desire to push boundaries and to enter into unknown realms and natural environments where language and experience meet each other in strange, unpredictable ways where “[p]ink/tears harden to plastic beads” (31).
In the White Room embraces the beauty and uncomfortable quality of language and wrestles with it in beautiful, unpredictable ways so that each poem is driven by a quest to know. “Maybe” the speaker confesses in “What I Said," “behind the hour/was a word I didn’t know, a splinter/of glass” (18). These lines reveal a materiality of language and emotion that exist side by side in the most banal places: a store, a moon, a frozen lake, or a snow fall.
McLagan’s work is remarkable in its breadth and scope. If the white room is representative of the space she creates, it is a capacious but discerning one in which McLagan brings to light the challenges and delights of writing “in the upper/left hand page of the sky” (92).
Elizabeth McLagan. In the White Room. CW Books, 2013.