In our most artful poetry, form
and content are united in expression. This is something James McLaughlin
accomplishes brilliantly in Justified Sonnets. In the Sonnets, McLaughlin uses spaces along
with forward, back and vertical slashes in place of punctuation and
conjunctions. The slashes and spaces establish the rhythm of the language by
both joining and separating the fragments of text, which admirably expresses
the theme of the work: engagement and separation. The Sonnets graphically illustrate both our
involvement in the natural world and our alienation from it - states of being
we experience simultaneously as part of the human condition.
The seventy-two pieces in this collection pay nominal homage to the
traditional sonnet form, being of fourteen lines each, but the standard
syllable count per line and the rhyme scheme have been abandoned, replaced by
short lines fully justified between narrow margins giving us thin rectangles
of text reminiscent of building bricks, doorways, picture frames or
tombstones. But the narrowness of the margins gives form to a greater vision,
both in theme and language. It is a very human book, only peripherally
concerned with lofty philosophical questions, more intent on a practical
understanding of a man's place in the world, of coming to terms with
mortality, hope, loss and failed relationships. All this is cast in study of
the individual's involvement in the natural world.
Nature figures large in the Sonnets, described in language as lush as a summer
afternoon - not flowery, but with imbued with sensual beauty. The natural
world is a seductive dreamlike experience of blue, pink, gold, apricot,
white, lavender, cherry, lemon. The vision here is not romanticized or
sentimental; it is concrete in its reality and the hardships of life.
Language figures large in the Sonnets as well. Language is the meeting place
of the eternal world of nature and the mortal world of mankind. But not every
day conversational language, more a symbolic language of the psyche,
converted \ as this
stream here | images and ideas
| the mind communicated
to the centre of consciousness'. The stream of consciousness is the
same as the mountain stream, the stream that runs through dendritic
undergrowth, the dribble of stream struggling on dry Earth that flows through
the poems. McLaughlin particularly writes about punctuation, the structural
part of language that gives form to our perception of the natural world.
Except for a few '?', there is no punctuation in the Sonnets and rarely any capital letters.
With the fractured syntax and hanging articles, we are presented with an
unsettling language that viscerally conveys our tenuous connection to
The poems could be characterized as the interplay of the Symbolist world of
timeless sensual beauty, as represented in Stephane Mallarme's L'apres-midi
d'un faune (Afternoon of a Faun): '...you know, my passion, how / each pomegranate, purple now / and
fully ripened, bursts - and hums / with bees; and our blood, taking fire /
from her who will possess it, flows / for the timeless swarm of all desire',
and the Decadent world, trapped in the entropy of time, decaying, dying,
ceasing, so forcefully evoked by Charles Baudelaire in Une Charogne (A
Carcass): 'At a
turn in the path a foul carcass /On a gravel strewn bed, // Its legs raised
in the air, like a lustful woman, / Burning and dripping with poisons, /
Displayed in a shameless, nonchalant way / Its belly, swollen with gases.'
But for McLaughlin, this seems to be a false dichotomy, for the natural world
is humanized: vines love, the sky loves and needs, water longs, branches are
merciless - the whole riot of nature is alive with emotion and memory.
While nature is humanized, humanity is not naturalized. We are doomed to
death and loss. The best we can hope for is an active witnessing, 'an
official witness \ an active part |'. What becomes
clear as we read through the collection is that the natural world is symbolic
of our ill-defined emotional reality; 'symbols / such as trees and flowers \
scent /sound\ touch and taste |' - '| symbol
all form of the specific \ ...
to be alive in | the earth is
to accuracy and water | truthful as representation \ inaccurate'. What
separates us from immersion in the sensual world is our feeling of loss. Loss
is a peculiarly human state. While occasionally devolving into bitterness,
'arrows were stabbed through hearts / and all that/ bastard/ shit' - 'oh just cut the moon in
two / let me
fucking die', McLaughlin is clear that we are not victims of an insensitive
world, but that we bring loss on ourselves through indecision, wrong choices
and poor communication.
The theme of communication brings us once more back to language as the hinge
our relationship with the natural world. Language becomes 'another substance'
that melds our internal and external realities, '| intersections \ junctures \the complete joining of
one thing with another \'.
Through language the distinction between the natural world and the human is
blurred, '| away off I
hear a swallow \or is it a distraught fiend |' and being human is embedded in nature. But our sense of
loss renders understanding of the world impossible, leaving us ultimately
unable to connect, 'existence can be always nearly | nearly \ just so|'. Nature is impervious to human
suffering and our concerns are insignificant, 'is it always so important to
be right \ these wetlands for
example make little of it
/ nor that mad crow'. To be human is to be
alone in the world with our pain. It's fascinating to read the collection and
see how McLaughlin uses the 'substance' of language to both weave together
and force apart the various aspects of our being.
With dazzling verbal acrobatics, McLaughlin leaps through a range of emotion
from despair through hope to renewal, eventually finding the self in nature,
'it was the first time he felt an elation \ that point of fear between isolation and ecstasy \
that point between
bliss | release those clouds - let the rain fall |',
although a self shattered by loss, a self of 'splintered shards', 'a small
piece left or broken'. The sense of melancholy displacement that pervades the
text is summed up in the last line, 'am I to
be a simple pipe that
carries liquid from a tap '. The failure
to truly encounter the world is unresolved and we are left feeling oddly
isolated, questioning where we belong.
Justified Sonnets is a satisfying read that both challenges and enlightens. A
collection to be returned to again and again to fully appreciate its dramatic
range and depth. Highly recommended.
© John C.