Book Review - The Sea Is My Ugly Twin, Marcella Remund
The Sea Is My Ugly Twin
Finishing Line Press. 2018: 28 pp.
This review appeared in the 31st edition of The Briar Cliff Review.
In this remarkable collection, Marcella Remund floats the reader in and out of myth, through various cultures and land/ seascapes, engaging us all the while with dream-like imagery and compelling ideas. Beginning with the first and title poem, we find ourselves moving from the sea to dry land like an ancient creature in evolutionary transition, losing its gills, finding a “dried up nugget” of a mate, and making “animal noises.” Meanwhile the ugly twin is left behind, lavish and seductive, autonomous (“Herself/sea/moon/salt is her mate”), a Jungian mystery. These binaries continue throughout the collection, but it becomes clear that they resolve [or dissolve] somehow in the consciousness of the poet, where the ugly twin is not left behind, but persists like memory, like the smell of salt air, or a sticky feel on the skin.
The duality of dry land vs. sea might be more accurately described as a dialectic, as the poems slither in and out of the ocean, with sea creatures crawling onto land, unzipping their sealskins, and land creatures growing gills to return to the sea. The two worlds of dry land and ocean interlock. Within the drought-plagued plains of South Dakota, the sea encroaches, as seagulls appear in a parking lot and visit the poet’s “landlocked dreams.” Water may not be abundant there, but its scarcity engenders love and longing: In South Dakota, water “passes through, teases and dampens us...” And in a time when “Nestle/owns the oceans, bottles the rivers” it is necessary to “Pack away your bone-dry intellect. /Go outside naked. Dance and sing.”
In these poems you will meet a number of water creatures and mythic beings: mermaids, selkies, nymphs, Narcissus. The mythology varies from Greek to Irish to Taoist to Hindu, but the central theme remains the same: longing for the lost mysteries, emotions, and interminglings represented by water and water’s governing orb, the moon. In “Halcyon,” the poet references the myth of Alcyone and Ceyx, for whom Aeolus calms the winds to protect their floating nest of eggs.“Maybe we are anchored only by regret and foreboding. But is it so much to ask, Aeolus, for just a few more days of settled seas?” This yearning for respite from the buffeting wind corresponds to a desire to leave behind the pressures and skittishness, the tick-tock of modern life, and sink into silence and a more contemplative existence. In “Hermitage,” a sequence of five poems, we accompany the poet on a five day retreat in which the noise and technology that mask a more enduring reality are shed. The process is gradual and painful (“In the stillness, terror”), but the initial discomfort is necessary to approach a stillness in which even language is pared down to the essential. The final poem in the sequence consists only of four words: “Light, water, map, silence.”
Even as Remund plumbs Jungian depths, she salts her poems with humor, often self-deprecating. In “Lugubrious Monsters” the title beings “refuse to be happy, satisfied, /or even slightly less harumphy.” People expect lovely mermaids, but they get “sheets...full of barnacles” and the smell of “squid ink.” Our romantic notions require an ideal, so the poor monsters are left to hide “in closets, behind the dust and myths.” Sometimes the humor sharpens into satiric barbs and social commentary about first world affluence and luxury in a world afflicted with poverty and suffering. And, if we hold romantic notions, the most idealized one is “self.” Like Narcissus, we want “to love a reflection we can only//disrupt, to be satisfied with the surface....”
These poems dive beneath that surface into the ocean that is both our origin and our destination. The sea is our mother, the umbilical ocean from whom we were born “finless newborn[s].” We enter the parched land, leaving the twin behind to move “between clouds of sunlit/ plankton and the enfolding deep.” But the sea drops “precious beads of salted water...to guide you back, to bring you crawling home.” Throughout this collection, there is the call back to the “dark womb / of the sea,” to regress to a state “weightless/again at last, unborn.” A deceptively simple poem, “Water to Dust,” covers life from birth to aging to death in eighteen short lines. By the end of it, the “crumbling body” is reduced to “water, dust.” In this collection, the recurrent images of wet and dry, ocean and parched land, are not only juxtaposed but interpenetrate in a kind of symbiosis. These poems challenge us on many levels, not the least being to invite us to ask the ultimate questions, to usher us into the appalling but alluring deep waters of our most primal hopes and fears.