Pinwheel, selected by Jean Valentine for the 2012 New Issues Poetry Prize, is Marni Ludwig’s first full-length collection of poetry. “By what small margin we escape and look up” is Ludwig’s own synopsis of the collection, taken from the last line of her poem “A Reenactment.” Perhaps then it is fitting that I used this slim volume of poetry as my substitute for a sunhat in my poolside chair, simultaneously escaping the summer sun and looking up into this mysterious and effective darkness. And perhaps it’s fortunate that I read Pinwheel in such pleasant environs—Ludwig’s evocation of trauma and addiction builds a powerful empathy. But as difficult as the terrain is, the poems tempt with hints and subversions, with intensifying repetitions and images, with intelligent sound play. The poem “Ceremony for Lying Completely Still” occurs early in the collection and sets the style of Ludwig’s poetic inquiry.
I say I had my accident,
after which two men ran
into the street while I counted
the number of steps it took
to get to where the door hurt.
All drawings are by thieves
with beautiful hands.
All silences are accurate.
I like a mask. I like music.
When I get sick I take my logic
with a spoon.
Did you notice if he was wearing gloves?
I’ve come to trust only questions.
At approximately 2 p.m. I was lying face-down
on the floor, asking nicely for an afternoon.
“Among the Living as Among the Dead,” also appears near the beginning of the collection, and this one reads like a lightly spun ars poetica while highlighting the poetic devices Ludwig uses. “How do you cure memory?” she asks, as though rhetorically. In this poetry, however, nothing is ever rhetorical, and the sound-play attempts to solve the question’s dilemma.
…Choreograph the sky
and the birds all turn to plastic bags
or else they smack the glass.
Say something less true
but with one true face,
like a statue. Say something else.
I sold the future for a second past,
told the snow my name
but it knew. White logic,
black spoon, scare tactic,
nodding out in a hospital bracelet
humming some third harmony
you shouldn’t sing
a kid. You shouldn’t sing.
You should step aside.
The birds hit back here,
where want is an event
visibly breathing in its sling.
You died twice in a lace dress,
in a folding chair,
you didn’t hear the door…
Ludwig’s repetitions act to intensify attention, especially as objects reappear in different poems, like characters do in different acts of a play. In the poem “Confectionary,” which appears at about the two-thirds mark in the collection, the birds and the act of dying twice share a poem again, where the question is “Who cares what flowers are for, / selling jigsaw puzzles door-to-door?” Answer: “Life without relief. / Layer cake mystique / telling secrets to the tongue.” The repetitions intensify even more here by Ludwig’s sound-play and slant rhymes between and within the lines. Following closely: “Life without relief. / Layer cake mystique / telling secrets to the tongue” leads to the word “seek” hidden in the word “secrets,” but very slightly revealed in the heightened sound of these poetic lines. The last poem in the collection is titled “Secret.”
I sought out the repetitions of objects and phrases in the collection, as though they were clues in a mystery novel. But, unlike a mystery novel, this book invited flipping back and forth, looking for the lemons, lakes, canaries, mirrors, and spoons. The repetitions also represent the poet’s process of inquiry, where the images are tested against each other, or in different contexts, or from different points of view.
Ludwig has mentioned Joseph Cornell, famous for his surreal assemblages, as one of her inspirations. One example is the parallel inquiry between the two poems “Cigar Box” and “Refrigerator.” In “Refrigerator,” the box itself speaks: “I am liking you leaning in / for yogurt and morphine.” The sharp humor here is welcome relief from the powerful lyric voice that enacts most of this collection. Still, the brilliance is unabated, as this metaphoric Cornell box speaks to that voice of their shared experience:
—and the eggs hum
to the insect
in your chest—
One is frightened
and spins all night
in its carton.
In “Cigar Box,” the box remains a witness or silent accessory to the voice, which remarks: “In school I was good in death and math. / I practiced your name on yellow scratch paper.”
Another instance of repetitions and their effect on poetic inquiry are the many references to the moon and death. Each of these poems also takes a different twist or theme, as in “Ceremony for a Susie” (moon + death + a doll) and “Ferry” (moon + death + river stones). The poem “Parade,” in the center of the collection and marked off by blank flanking pages, contains four sections, the first and last of which participate in the moon-death arc. The first section begins
All the songs about the electric chair
sound like love songs. Weather
carries our Chevy to sea,
merrily, merrily, merrily.
A mariner with a stand-in moon
can’t quite stomach daybreak.
The reference here to a nursery rhyme set my poetic ears on its own delightful inquiry, as to whether the moon and the spoon would reconcile somewhere. The fourth section heightened my curiosity and seemed to encourage the idea with “blow a birthday / cake into orbit. Moon podium, dead satellite, / the physical feeling of falling back / into favor.” The suggestion is “Hey Diddle Diddle” and Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussy-cat” as opposed to Walter de la Mare’s “Silver,” or maybe it’s some deft remix of the three childhood rhymes. The moon and spoon do end up together, trysting in the first stanza of “Arrow,” as the collection starts to accelerate toward its end. The very next poem “Everything Is a Hat” declares
a chipped tooth
with the room
you died into.
like a black
from your wrist.
in the family
She leaves the moon/death motif behind at this point, and sleep takes over. Anesthetists and “muffled white sheep” inhabit the next poem, and the poem after that asks “Are you sleeping?” In “Mermaid Parade,”
I wish you slight misfortune
and a self-prescribed sleep disturbed
by dreams of immaterial lobsters.
Ludwig packs wonderment in the collection so that empathy for the difficult movements of pain and fear can take. In the first lines of “Petite” near the end of the collection, she writes, “The author wants you / to be interested in her nature.” The poem “Parallax” sums up this beautifully dark poetry collection of image and sound and herself.
I can’t swim in my condition.
Say the sand is discarded by the sea,
The flowers you loved were weeds.
It hurts to be right, a slight need satisfied.
The dead kick a ball around the yard.
The living remain wedded to their paths
Like rooks. Once I took a dandelion
For granted, with some sun.
It is possible to be sick with intuition.
I seem to be leaving, but still I am looking.
A. Anupama is a U.S.-born, Indian-American poet and translator whose work has appeared in several literary publications, including The Bitter Oleander, Monkeybicycle, The Alembic, Numéro Cinq and decomP magazinE. She received her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2012. She currently lives and writes in the Hudson River valley of New York, where she blogs about poetic inspiration at seranam.com.