Michael Mirolla’s Light and Time:
Imagery, Language & Mystery
One would say that the poetic image, in its newness, opens a future to language.
– Gaston Bachelard
Michael Mirolla looks into his art as into a language prism: light glances off many sides of the ‘object’ at once and time, particularly time, is what attempts to hold it still. They seem to work as artistic principles, informing and revelatory: the condition and product of the work itself. But as time lets go, the poem is left not just as a brilliantly light-refracted piece; it is also, in Stevens’s parlance, that perennially interesting “world [that] lives as you live/Speaks as you speak”, the demystified thing as it is. We are not left with just a lovely inscrutable artifact but an image, as Bachelard says, that “opens a future to language”. And as Mirolla says in Light and Time, “One toss and th’ impressions gone./Time is a vengeful puddle quick to dry/behind us.” (28); and a little further in the same poem, “And yes, th’ impression’s still there/where you left it/and, as you slip in, the sun/ rises on thick haunches” (32). Once seen, the poem, thing, impression is changed for ever, and always set afterward to reveal more significant properties and depths.
Is this the Surrealist artist at work or word-dreamer of daring and verbal precision? A proponent for a radical Canadian nouveauté ? Or perhaps a neo-classicist at heart, a respecter and proponent of culture, language and literary influences? Michael Mirolla is a well-respected member of the Canadian writing community. Born in Italy and arriving in Canada at the age of five, Mirolla calls himself a Montreal-Toronto corridor writer because he spends so much time traveling between the two cities. He’s a novelist, short story writer, poet and playwright. His publications include the recently-released novel Berlin (a finalist for the 2009 Indie Book and National Best Books Awards), and two short story collections—The Formal Logic of Emotion and Hothouse Loves & Other Tales. A collection of poetry, Light And Time, was recently published [ed. note: American publication date set for September 2010], an English-Italian bilingual collection of poetry Interstellar Distances/Distanze Interstellari and an Italian translation of The Formal Logic of Emotion.
So we certainly can’t read Light and Time, or an author as multi-versed in literary genres as Michael Mirolla, with pre-set notions of the poem in mind. And it won’t do either to restrict him to place, time, or any particular literary influence. He is a skillful practitioner of imagery, but I cannot call him an Imagist or even uniquely Canadian poet. If we want to keep the true constructive impetus of the work alive before us, we must see novelist, short story writer, poet and playwright as open as any artist (and as any literary oeuvre) can be to a global or even indeed a cosmological interest. Robin Blaser, in one of his many insightful entrances into the poetic process, exhorts poets to record both the music of the spheres and the “sound of the earth.” Poetry not consciously subjected to prescribed style or content is universal in Blaser’s unique sense.
Poetry is here venerated as among the highest expressions of human sentience and sentiment. And very much as if first principles or basic constituents of a cosmological poetics were primary, Mirolla begins with ‘light’ and ‘time’:
Light and Time
you know the two well
The empty heart of the tunnel
that beats against you
photon by photon
and chips away at the edges
where you exist,
there’d soon be
Mirolla’s is a unique type of impression-gathering that at first can reduce the object to a sum of pure visual or imagistic effects. The nature of poetry is never to lose sight of the object, the writer glued to it sometimes with an irrepressible tenacity, for whatever light illumines will soon strike the reader as a vibrant living presence. To turn the poem one way, held high in front of you, is to look for delectation and brilliance (poem as aesthetic object) but to sense also that something has been transformed in the viewing, whether the poem, object or reader. Mirolla does not just aestheticize his objects in the hope of turning them into traditional vehicles for a personal lyricism, the object that is read also envelops and unfolds, offering a wealth of phenomenal details.
In the case of “Light and Time,” the poem that frames the collection as a whole, light is in the end an eerie receptacle for darkness imaged as the “empty heart of the tunnel/that beats against you/photon by photon.” The effect on the reader can be hard-edged, too, since light and time are envisaged as objects that literally chip away at you. A similar sort of falling into the thing’s inscrutable heart after an extinction of metaphorical light appears in “Roman Sketch” where “Gravity sucks you down into/the tombs, the dry unlickable dust,/ a shimmer of molecule slipping/past molecule” (46). The entire poem is worth citing for the way both the dying light of imagery and allusion combine to bring the reader to the poem’s own lapse into a crazed memory of the past.
The old Carthage rises like bile in the throat
(‘tis a pieta she’s a whore).
There where the salt fell on fallow
dreams now grow:
Monstrous hands in dislocation,
eyeless angels stripped of wings
straining for a glimpse
still-life on the march,
City of eternal bilitus,
sacrifice on the alterings of history.
What Black Mass has kept you afloat,
moored in barbaric legions?
gravity sucks you down into
the tombs, the dry unlickable dust,
a shimmer of molecule slipping
they keep digging you up again,
brushing back time
bit by bit
a spoonful a day
till you are all foundation
your kinfolk sedimentary
numbers in catalogue:
till one asks not:
Can it survive?
Is there enough cement
to keep the question from
Describing Mirolla’s poetry as the mystery of illumined seeing is a necessary first step. The content of lakes, authors and paintings fall into the same void with reader. In “Crane Lake 1”:
We all speak of depth
as if the water mirrored something
more profound than the dragon-fly
that lands non-chalantly on your arm;
or the snapping turtle that hovers near,
its craggy face blowing bubbles
thru the lattice of sunlight, the gleam
of an ancient presence that ignores
all around it…even our god himself.
We all speak of silence
as if the momentary glimpse
of loon should make us hush
in awe. Should make us forget the rivulets
of a dying lamp pointed
at the tight core of our betrayal.
We speak of memory
as if… as if…
The object of the poem cannot be just the metaphor of “depth” and “ancient presences” as if that were enough nor is it a presentation of fragments of a landscape, “dragon-fly”, “water”, “rivulets” pieced together only and strictly in imagination. Speaking about Crane Lake as the poet’s traditional lake divests it of its ‘substantive’, irreducibly real nature, that more vital something to “make us hush/in awe”. The depth we have come to the poem for soon reduces to the empty “silence” of language or retreats into “memory,” where all we have is the stammering language of “as if,” when instead of a lake, there is only a sinister immersion into the “the tight core of our betrayal.” Note the inadequacy of figurative language to get the memory exactly in line with the passing of a friend in “Snap: On The Death Of A Friend”: the experience of a passing recorded, between the intrusive ‘snaps’, “like bed-sheets stiff with starch/like the smell/like the smell/like the smell of me” (40).
How much can literary first principles help us understand Mirolla’s treatment of other objects? Light and time are more limitations than ways to unpack the poem, or rather conditions that can only be impossibly met. As they should be. Mirolla seems to be trying to unpack a negative mystery so that the poetry becomes self-reflexive in the way contemporary art turns the inscrutable imaginative eye on itself as much as it does on language, content, and style.
So what, and where, is that essential poem we seem to be always anticipating and never getting? Its opalescence and timelessness, in fact? Light and time seem to unravel the more we rely on them for a sense of textual stability. Mirolla himself can pose the question as “What certainty? What dense core?” (17) because I suspect that each poem is its own unique way into the elusive heart. And the heart seems to lie somewhere between “the ghost” and the “flaxen-haired body” (16); between the “green boat” and its occupant “who can’t wave back” (77); between words and flesh (17); and also between road kill and all the signs in Nature that should have alerted you from the beginning: like a mourning dove’s crucifix, or trees “strain[ing] against their leashes” (79).
In every poem an object, dancer, rower, road kill and then its lightless, denuded form as the poem that leaves us only with Rilkean mystery. Perhaps the poet’s enjoined the reader “to play with words/like a whistler in the dark.” (30), sensing the impossibility of giving the poem whole to us.
To Franz K.
Tubercular swimmer in the o’er-
brimming soup, let me throw you a line.
We have voyaged together in short bursts
like DNA but you’ve outstripped me
now, diving beneath the fetid waves
without cease, only to surface again
with the swollen worm firmly between your teeth.
Severed antenna from a long-lost sense,
you held it tight, held it accountable.
And it wasn’t enough that it tugged at the human
in you – how could it have so misunderstood?
I, on the other hand, friend to the shattered
light, the crystal blossoming, have flown
towards a sky full of glass tinkle and
laughter, the intense magic of daily events.
There, I await you, dangling a thread
like a viral infection before your eyes.
Yes, it’s a desperate re-creation—
lacking cruelty—but you will reach for it.
Gaunt scissors dipped in red
The poem can only approximate its object, imprisoned in the light of bewitching vision itself. A register not of synthesis but of the essential irreducibility of language to its object, as if the poem itself could only be “shattered/light” and nothing but that. Language can’t connect to the subject, poet calling it “a desperate re-creation”, and if it tries to the effect is as absurd as trying to throw a life line to a drowning Franz K: a Kafkaesque impulse to revel in the improbabilities (or absurdities) of making the poem a vehicle for meanings. Even at the close DNA level (and what can be closer?) kinship between poet and literary ideal is too impossibly unreal. Life lines, in Kafkaesque style, metamorphose into viral threads, and implements of writing into “[g]aunt scissors dipped in red”.
Now light and time, stripped of purely metaphysical functions, are agents of a new opening to language, reconfigured on patterns of incongruities and asymmetrical viewing that mark the true experiences from which the poem arises. Looking at “Le Repos Du Vieillard” is not to see rest but a portrait of imminent death, skillfully delineated in shade and tones as though we were looking a surrealist painting; a transformation of stillness and finality of life into ghastly insect body and of the place of death (“a house of cards”) itself into Tartarean hell.
The snow falls calmly on a house of cards.
All the windows sealed. Eyes of smoky marble
shutter the thoughts in the parapets like minds-
flakes drying as they tumble. Rest in the moment
neglected ghosts break down the narrow door
and the candles on the bedsides
put themselves out. They strain to move
each other on limp machinery and collapse
among the chairs that clutter the room.
When I was young, he says,
they nailed me to the floor
and watched me ripen.
Now, my movements are stares
through smoke-filled eyes.
Foreign hands have gripped her iris.
She crawls in the cellar dense with sand,
looks for the nipple of gas her breath can ignite.
Snow hisses in recoil. Like a sun-flower,
the house turns creaking on its joints.
Inside, they are busy stroking chairs.
Perhaps “figurative surrealism”, as the postmodern scholar Christopher Butler uses the term, best fits Mirolla’s portrait in verse. To read the poem “Le Repos du Vieillard” is to see that “Only that subject matter is valued which is tragic and timeless” (Butler 17). Everything in the old man at rest and its delineation in language suggest that the last hope for a true representationalist piece may have been dissolving into nightmare of non-representational (modernist) art. But since the poem isn’t based on a real painting, the point is only conjectural.
And, of course, Mirolla’s poetry does not stop at just a slowly fading hope. Not in this new transfiguring language of darkling meanings where light seems to give shape only to sinuous Kline bottles, and air itself “moans when invaded” (42). Metaphor can empty itself out and leave the reader following the insect’s trail to sense. “The day is a slow beetle” in whose head a day of mortal living is reenacted (21). Mirolla also refers to similar “beetle dreams” in “Blind Alley.”
A classical author like Prudentius, known for purity and asceticism, becomes a foreground to the poet’s portrait of the quintessential Etruscan garden, as in “The Garden.” Or the dying light of day “at the deep end/of the garden” can be imaged as “the silent dog…slashing across the moonbeam throat,” surrealistic pairs of the same object if ever there were any. Again for the effect in Mirolla’s poetry of such wonderfully asymmetrical poetic elements as ‘garden’ and ‘silent dog’, the whole must be intuited:
In my garden, Prudentius might have
written, the fruits never ripen. Splotches
of pensees, swirls of non-meeting, girligigs
that spell Might-Have-Been. The tomatoes lust
for actuality, some mouth-like leech-like
appendage to suck their sweetness dry.
Instead, a world of infinity-minus-one.
The grapes bleed onto my forehead; roses
sway sentient – a moment of poetry? –
but no earthly grip can feel their prick.
Suffer, baby, suffer. In my garden.
Prudentius just might (possibly) have said,
the lukewarm breasts of a maybe woman
swelled for a second. Was it my fingers
or the telltale wind from a world I
imaged? Did it matter? No barbarians’
horses can trample this: my garden.
The still air has changed forever.
It is interesting to note the many ways the poet tries to imagine the unimaginable, know the unknowable as if it were just a whisper to him from some ghostly outside place (35). Or even a lie is “essential geography,” said to reside just below the heart, that turns into “the mauve outline of a lamb caught high in the gorse” (33). Light and time seem to have been tricked into authoritative roles they can’t handle, descrying the abject inability of even the world’s own most formidable supports to reveal things free from strangeness and parody. How else to account for the startling asymmetry of language and “the mauve lamb” expression?
Data De Facto
Only from the unbidden will ‘things’ come clear;
only from the margin will the centre be found;
only from re-vision will the spectacle unfold.
Reverse the prism to see the light;
undo the machine to regain your limbs.
But the opposite of complex is not the simple
and ill-logic won’t cure what ails us.
The frozen fields just beyond our doors
aren’t devoid of life. They’re only waiting
for the right time.
What comes from the unbidden is the blackbird’s wing;
all the margin tells you is: Yes, you are here;
the spectacle holds up its own mirror,
bloody at the edges.
Mirolla can now enumerate some of the ‘givens’ (data) of his work in an attempt to save it from the ravages of poststructuralism. “Data de Facto” is a good place to end our entrance into Mirolla’s poetry because of what it acknowledges: namely, both the radical disparities of a world to which poetry must approach and the essential mystery lying at its core. The unspoken references to Derrida (“margin”) and Debord (“the spectacle”), this century’s leading intellectual polestars, are telling and well-timed. The reader cannot call forth ‘things,’ because things are already there, already variously set in the intertextual weave that language has become. The complexity of the poem means envisaging the appearance of sudden (delightfully paradoxical) ‘newness.’ How else to refer to the staleness of old friends as “Zeno upside-down” (52) or even Los Angeles as an outmoded “parable of the world” (50)?
And if we lose the center to a too self-illumined spectacle (as is the effect of reading most experimental writing today), it is all the more reason to refocus or even shift perspectives a bit (“Reverse the prism to see the light”). Mirolla leaves us with a view of the poem as at best a “de facto” product. Not the mirror but the mirrored, and not so much surface reflection as depth undistracted by chimerical light. And as for time, it is no longer to be resisted. As Jack Spicer says in After Lorca: “Objects, words must be led across time not preserved against it.”
Imagery and language, however valuable in themselves, really cannot be seen as anything but limitations of the poetic craft. Approximations at best. But there is no mistaking the centrality of the object in Mirolla’s poetry, its “Quint Essential” lucidity, and depth and mystery:
Rasp-tongued train scraping blue sky
across the backsides
of rusted frames
Pagan mountains the scarred templates
for an aching distance
the repetition of desire
Languid barn buckled to its tired joints
besotted timbers sighing
in a mudslinger wind
Flint-eyed sun flaring in its long journey
to signal the end
the frozen passages
Air earth water fire: a hand rising
amid the corn husks
a hand sinking…
Unlike a lot of experimentalist writing in Canada, there is a traditional reverencing for object and narrative voice that cannot ever be open to the charge of housing sexist or imperial sentiments (a rhetoric most Canadian academic readers still employ). Here poetry is neither pop-collage nor the site of multiple discourses nor a specimen of any of the experimentalist credos responsible for some disastrous writing within the past few decades. Has it ever become unfashionable, then, to speak with “God’s Language” (76)? Has the impetus to that sort of poetic scope and intention been beaten out of the literary psyche? Perhaps nobody has dared as courageously as Michael Mirolla to restore the (almost religious) mystery of reading and the integrity of poetic experience itself, transient and brilliant as an evaporating “puddle”:
Awakening: there are puddles
everywhere; images of time that reflect
for a moment and then evaporate
with the sun.
god’s language only
is spoken here.
Blaser, Robin. The Fire: Collected Essays of Robin Blaser. Ed. Miriam Nichols. Berkely: University of California Press, 2006.
Butler, Christopher. After the Wake: An Essay on the Contemporary Avant-Garde. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980.
Mirolla, Michael. Light and Time. Clinton, ON: SkyWing Press, 2008.
Jake Spicer. My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer. Ed. Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2008.
Stevens, Wallace. The Collected Poems. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.