I hope someone will write a longer essay about Shannon Maguire’s Myrmurs because I’m fascinated by the book, and believe it deserves some real attention. There are ambitious macro-structures at play (the book calls itself an “exploded sestina”), there are references to queer poetics and contemporary philosophy, and there are cool drawings of ants by David Bateman that I believe are meant to be in conversation with some of the poems. The book is unabashedly allusive and experimental, smart and playful, and invites an extended explanatory reading that could tease out the richness Maguire has implanted there.
But I don’t have the space for that here, so let me merely spend a bit of time with a 9-line poem that opens the collection to give a taste of its various trajectories and concerns. The poem appears after the Table of Contents but before the epigraph, and so is a sort of prologue or maybe even a kind of dedication:
The most visible ants are
(we venture into outer worlds) –
they build life-supporting
(we feed & protect each other)–
structures for their society
coordinate their work thru
(our pheromones &)—
— from Myrmurs (BookThug 2015), used by permission
Two things strike me as a reader right away when I encounter this. First, the shape of the poem, its regular short stanzas and repeated use of the long dash, summons Emily Dickinson. Even the rich, weirdly inventive metaphor of worker ants as a corollary for “non-reproductive females” and how they contribute to society seems to me something that Dickinson would get a kick out of. I’ll go further into that metaphor momentarily.
The other thing that catches my eye on first reading is the back-and-forth between “we” and “they,” which is underscored by the use of parentheses for all of the “we” statements. The parallel between the worker ants and “we” is very clear, but by holding back from unifying the pronouns Maguire stops short of implying that the two groups are the same. They are connected in the poem, but they are held separate by the grammar, line breaks, and punctuation. The limitations of the comparison are as important as the comparison itself.
So let’s explore that parallel first, before pointing out some of its limitations. My perfunctory familiarity with ant sociology suggests to me that almost all of the important work in an ant colony gets done by workers and soldiers – both sterile females – and that only reproduction is handled by drones (reproductive males) and a single queen (reproductive female). Even the raising and feeding of larva is handled by the workers. On the other hand, as I hope doesn’t need to be pointed out, “non-reproductive females” have traditionally been marginalized (at best) by patriarchal societies including our own, leaving them without defined communal roles or value. By pointing out a highly organized social system like that of ants and emphasizing the crucial role that non-reproductive females play in it, Maguire simply and defiantly asserts that it doesn’t have to be this way, and that moreover it probably already isn’t this way. What’s magical about the comparison Maguire sets up here is that she doesn’t need to explain any of this – the metaphor is never explicitly pointed out, there is no line in the poem that says, “Ain’t we just like those ants?!” But the interweaving of the “we” statements in the 2nd, 5th, and 8th lines (which we might initially mistake as the voice of the worker ants themselves?) infers an affinity with “the most visible ants” referred to in the rest of the poem that encourages us to think further, to explore the implications. Who are the “we” in this poem? Which “non-reproductive females” are we talking about exactly? Do they really “build life-supporting… structures for their society”? Which structures are those? A full social critique opens up that provides numerous avenues for exploration in the rest of the book.
But let’s be careful not to overstate the comparison. In the middle stanza, the ants of the first and third lines may be constructing “life-supporting…structures for their society,” but the speakers of the middle line “feed & protect each other.” These are not exactly the same activities. In fact, given what we know about humanity, it seems likely that the “structures of their society” are precisely what human non-reproductive females women often need protection from. Or perhaps the structures they are building are alternatives to those already in existence? Either way, they are not exactly like the worker ants, whose social position in the colony is not up for debate. The human women who appear in the rest of Myrmurs will address these questions in greater detail as well, trying to decide which aspects of “normative” societal structures they find valuable, and which require revision, rebellion, or escape.
The last stanza brings the human and the ant back together somewhat. Here, the parentheses that have kept the human and the ant apart seem to blur – the sentence attempts to run over them. In other words, we can read the last stanza without the parenthesis and the sentence still coheres: both the ants and the women “coordinate their work thru…pheromones &… body contact.” “Body contact” is a funny term here, one that could refer to a whole range of practices from (non-reproductive) sex to fistfighting to the types of chemical communication that ants employ. This will be an important point of exploration for Maguire as well – that no matter how esoteric our thinking or abstract our ideas, we still inhabit physical bodies that have needs, discomforts, and desires, and that these cannot be held aloof from our intellectual or spiritual selves. The poem reminds us of the likelihood that the mind/body divide is itself a false binary invented by patriarchal Greek philosophy, deserving of critique.
If it appears that I’ve explored how this poem moves partly as a way to point you to read the rest of Myrmurs, I’m fine with that. It’s a short poem, but it opens up a lot of fascinating possibilities and serves as a very useful précis on what the rest of Maguire’s excellent book attempts to achieve.
One last point. If you are not accustomed to reading so-called “experimental” poetry, “The most visible…” – and indeed most of Myrmurs – might seem decidedly “unpoetic.” It isn’t particularly musical in its approach to language, it eschews regular meter, and it doesn’t really paint vivid images in the mind. A poem like this isn’t trying to do what, say, “Life With Tigers” (see below) does in its evocation of scene or character or mood. What it is trying to do is provoke the intellectual imagination. Its rhyme is implication, its metrics is social critique. Shannon Maguire does make more lyric gestures elsewhere in Myrmurs, but I think it’s all right to accept that her primary strength here is associative rather than imagistic. If that makes it a new kind of poem for your experience, good. Be not afeard. To belabor the metaphor of this blog’s title, this poem doesn’t “move” the way Raoul Fernandes’ poem moves, or the way a poem by Keats or Elizabeth Bishop or Karen Solie moves. But it does move— with energy, smarts, and its own kind of grace. I hope this essay can serve as a guide to help you see that movement on its own terms.