Fire and Ashes: Review of Rachel Rose’s Marry & Burn

by Laura Ritland

Laura Ritland’s poems have appeared in magazines across Canada including The Maynard, The Hart House Review, CV2, The Malahat Review, Maisonneuve, and Arc Poetry Magazine. She is the recipient of the 2014 Malahat Review’s Far Horizons Award for Poetry and the former Editor-in-Chief of Toronto’s echolocation magazine.

Marry & Burn
Harbour Publishing
4437 Rondeview Rd.
Madeira Park, BC, V0N 2H0

2015, 96 pp., $18.95, ISBN: 9781550177183


As its title conjures, Rachel Rose’s fourth collection of poetry, Marry & Burn, smoulders with intense lyrical energy and crackles with poetic technique. Elemental in its emotion and imagery, yet particular in its attention to place, people, and culture, the collection explores the difficulties of a troubled marriage, the sexual and ideological violence of our culture, and drug and alcohol addictions, to name a few of its major themes. Fire and ashes come to mind when describing Marry & Burn: fire, in its presentation of grief, psychological turmoil, and social violence; ashes, in the sense that the book looks at  “what is left” post-destruction. Technically sophisticated, fierce, and musical, there’s much to admire in Marry & Burn.

 

I. FIRE

The first section of Marry & Burn, “Vows,” opens with a marriage in crisis and a speaker in the middle of its conflagration. Its breakdown and the speaker’s intense desire for reunification with her partner inform these poems’ sense of pathos, dramatized in jagged lines like “Cleave: I cling. You unstring./ You sever. You halve. You rend./ I clasp. I cherish. I ring” (“Cleave”). Rose’s poems, however, are never “simply” personal. One of their most defining and powerful qualities lies in their ability to relate the personal to the social, in the tradition of Adrienne Rich or Bronwen Wallace—poets for whom the excavation of emotional experience follows a critique of social identity, especially one’s identity as a woman.

The speaker’s troubled marriage, for example, evokes more complicated questions about the fluidity of passion and its social sanction. In a same-sex marriage—a legal state still restricted in many jurisdictions—the speaker faces the conundrum that “Our country forbade us from vows,/ then gave us permission to marry/ but not divorce” (“Cleave”). What happens when feeling fails a contract meant to formalize its existence? Indeed, what happens when that contract itself fails to account for changes in romantic bonds? In “Compersion,” the speaker again re-frames these questions: “How many can we love?/ What’s the human limit?” the speaker wonders at a polyamory speed dating event. What are the edges of the boundaries that we as a culture have applied to desire? What are the limits and expansive capacities of desire itself?

At its most wild and glowing, Rose’s poems seem to shimmer with the tension between desire and its boundaries, longing and its limits. In the powerful and eerie “Marry or Burn,”  what could be either a single speaker and/or the dramatized voice of societal condemnation argues that there are two choices for a woman “who cannot be blessed”—she can be married or burned. The dichotomy seems to point towards the inevitable, and disturbing, erasure of a female subject who has transgressed social convention. Bride-burnings and witch-hunts come to mind.

What happens when feeling fails a contract meant to formalize its existence? Indeed, what happens when that contract itself fails to account for changes in romantic bonds?

Yet, while the sense of ritual proposed by the pounding language and the imperative tense try to enforce limitation (finality, death), the syntax itself suggests transformation: the chant of “marry or burn,” repeated in each couplet, ends with the changed “Marry and burn” (my emphasis); and the following poem, “Marry and Burn,” signals a revivification of a romantic relationship seeking alternatives rather than ultimatums: “We each envisioned the path not taken.” The chant finally transmutes into “Burn and marry,” by the end of the second poem, an inversion which semantically suggests the destruction of the past and, perhaps, a sense of re-forged connection. As much as Rose’s collection dramatizes destruction, then, it also seeks to transform ruin into renewal.

Indeed, for Rose, the idea of “fire” represents not only breakdown, but also release. In the most metaphysical poem of the collection, “Only Fire: An Inventory,” the speaker lists a series of transitional and sensuous acts (death of a beloved dog, waking up post-sex “between him and her in the stained sheets,” scattering a friend’s ashes, “swimming naked in a warm pond”). “Fire,” for Rose, seems to suggest an experience of being “post” or “beyond”—post-ecstasy, post-passion, post-life. It is “not death, but the moment just after.” Aside from exercising acute attention to the relationship between social and personal, then, Rose’s work also strives towards an articulation of something akin to transcendence.

 

II. FORM

Repetition, heavy rhyme, and spondaic rhythms raise the temperature of this collection, evident in lines like “I am in a crow snow globe/ the world off-kilters, tilts to spilt milk” (“The End of Love”) or the passionate anaphora of “Tooth.” Hypnotic, musical, these devices also entail sophisticated semantic sleights of hand. In “The End of I,” the speaker satirizes ideological suspicion towards first-person speakers—“I is passé. I is post-confessional”—by punning on its sound: “Aye-aye, captain,//my captain, unfortunately for I/ I hoist I// on I’s own petard.” This sonic repetition expands the word’s definition by making it into a sound with multiple meanings. “I,” Rose jokingly shows, is everywhere and endlessly utile. So much for its unfashionability.

Rose’s conflation of ancient and modern debstabilizes what we assume to be normative culture to make us question the normal. ‘Ritual’ itself might be natural, but the content of ritual is endlessly various.

“Anthropology” shows, I think, some of Rose’s most inventive uses of repetition. The poem makes a series of syntactically parallel statements about an anonymous cultural group (or perhaps groups) who practise what seem to be both ancient and very familiar rituals:

Family was the unit of measure for our people. We practiced CrossFit; we hung from ropes and jumped from boxes. We brought squash into the house and carved monsters into their rinds. We walked many miles; we suffered; we bound our feet in hide. Marriage was a four-day feast and an exchange of goods between households. The bride was captured in her bedroom and dragged by her golden hair to the merriment of all. (“Anthropology”)

The poem continues in this vein, weaving “modern” ritual with “arcane” practise—in effect, collapsing the distinction between the two. Advanced, primitive, what’s the difference? the poem seems to say. Our modern conventions are ritual; we are anthropological creatures. In this blur between categories, the poem seems to question the naturalization of modern tradition (I think this is a description of a facelift: “When a women reached the age of sixty, we cut the skin around her face and stitched it on, tighter.”). But on a more complicated level, the poem also seems to question the fixity of human ritual in general. I note this because there seems to be a   disturbing emphasis in this poem placed on acts of misogyny and sexual violence as ritual (e.g.: the woman dragged by her golden hair). How fundamental are these acts to our anthropology? How, for lack of better word, “natural” are they?

Not very natural at all, the poem seems to argue. Rose’s conflation of ancient and modern debstabilizes what we assume to be normative culture to make us question the normal. “Ritual” itself might be natural, but the content of ritual is endlessly various . This explains the ending of the poem, where the speaker asserts, “The only universal was bees. Bees and love. Honey and sting.” While perhaps human emotions like pain and love are “universal,” nothing is universal or natural about their particular manifestation in the ritual’s performance. The poem’s list of these different practises, from across time and countries, are meant to reveal their diversity. Here, repetition, for Rose, becomes an aesthetic of infinite variation and plural cultural practise. It allies itself with difference rather than fixity.

 

III. ASHES

Post-inferno, post-grief, post-knowledge of the ugly truths about our culture, how does one act? What’s left? For a collection that traces the fiery destruction of romantic bonds and the systemic violence of our culture’s mythologies, Marry & Burn is not short of belief in human generosity and the possibility of change. The final section of the book, “Addictions,” voices the circular, devastating stages of drug and alcohol addiction with an insistence on and hope for recovery. In the prayerful “Light of Addition,” the speaker asks “Let me make light of addition… let me be unbenumbed,/ awake in what happens in all my senses,/ to exist until I can face it.” This wakefulness, once we have been “stripped of legends/ stripped of vows &/ stripped of addictions” (“Stripped of the Legends”), concludes the collection’s trajectory. It suggests that we might achieve a greater attentiveness and generosity toward others. “Let me live as the tree does/ holding song and honey,” the speaker asks in “Hive Mind.” “Let me learn to eat light.”

Having survived the fire of the past, Rose’s work reveals a richness in the remaining ashes: generosity, kindness, and compassion.

Poetry-wise, Rose seems to suggest, this state of mind means being continually open and yet content with the constant flux inherent in life. “It is hard won, it is fragile, it does not bring joy./ It holds water, it holds air, it is its own reward” (“Ars Poetica”). A poet seeks to trace or follow meaning “by its track” or “by its blood,” yet “it can’t be captured.” This state of half-knowing and ineluctability “is enough” for a poetic practise. Life-wise, this state of being leads to an ability to give freely to others. “Come to the table” the speaker tells us in the final poem, “The Feast.” Having survived the fire of the past, Rose’s work reveals a richness in the remaining ashes: generosity, kindness, and compassion.

 


Laura Ritland’s poems have appeared in magazines across Canada including The Maynard, The Hart House Review, CV2, The Malahat Review, Maisonneuve, and Arc Poetry Magazine. She is the recipient of the 2014 Malahat Review’s Far Horizons Award for Poetry and the former Editor-in-Chief of Toronto’s echolocation magazine.

☝ BACK TO TOP