BILL SCALIA Reviews
Miniatures by Meredith Cole
(Marsh Hawk Press, New York, 2012)
The landscape of Meredith Cole’s book (at least that which suggests the most viable cohesion of the collection) is Japan. Part of the challenge of the work for the reader is defining just what “Japan” means. Cole’s ostensive definition refers to the nation of Japan, where she has spent time living and working. In this sense, “Japan” exists in time and space.
The material definition is of Japan as a collection of images and experiences, and this is exactly where Cole’s book is strongest. Her eye for detail is surgically precise, and Cole uses specific images to give rise to experiences that could not have risen in any other way, in either the speaker or the reader. It seems here that the thought (image) occurs before the experience, rather than the two occurring interdependently. This is the skill of poets, and this Cole does well.
But an odd moment occurs in the poem “Daisies,” in which the poet, describing being given a clutch of flowers one only finds in August, writes: “You must keep in mind it was August, / these things depend on the season / although you have never been to Japan / and you don’t know how damn hot it was . . . ”. I must assume that “you” is the reader (she gives us no direction otherwise), and my first response was, naturally, “how does Cole know I’ve never been to Japan?” Of course she can’t know this about any reader; this claim only makes sense, philosophically and aesthetically, in terms of formal definition: “Japan” is defined by its qualities reveled to us in the body of the text. These qualities of Japan are indispensable from the poet’s experience of Japan (her friends, her job, her partner), so that “Japan” is an experience more so than it is an actual place.
This is all fairly conventional literary practice, of course (she doesn’t pretend toward documentary realism), and we expect in a first person narrative work that we cannot separate the speaker’s experience from the experience itself. But there is another, rather peculiar, dimension to the experience of Japan in this book: the poet begins to refer to herself in the third person. I am assuming the “Meredith” referred to in the poems is in fact the poet herself; really, it makes little difference, because the tension increases with the shift from first person to third person. That is, in terms of formal definition, “Japan” is solely perspective from the observer “Meredith”; likewise, “Meredith” is defined in relation to “Japan.” Cole deflects the role of the poet/speaker into the existential; in defining “Japan,” she is defining “Meredith” – but is it “she” – or “Meredith”? performing the act of self-definition.
She is correct, then, that we have never been to “Japan.” But neither has “Meredith,” it seems, and the reader gets no closer to “Meredith” here than the accumulation of details and impressions. Perhaps this is her larger point: the self as defined by (and I stop just short of saying determined by) our tactile experiences, which give rise to emotional engagement (and which in turn connects inward impression and outward expression / self-definition). This happens in the book every time the “I” becomes “Meredith.” From the reader’s perspective “Japan” is reflected through a broken glass, darkly; from the speaker’s perspective, the reflected images reveal not an “I” but infinite shadows of “she.” The book revels in collections of images, and in seeking connection (externally, ourselves to a larger, transcendent meaning, or at least a verification of authenticity) and internally (aesthetically, within the structures of the book) we want the images to exceed their ostensive function; that is, we want them to be extra-determined. This extra-determination (as opposed to over-determination) might have been achieved by the poet utilizing conventional poetic devices (both metrical and aural). But in Miniatures the varied images add up to something less than a sum of their parts. This is no sleight of hand; the impression is not of something left out, or even of something aside, but of something that cannot be reclaimed because it was never assured of its existence in the first place.
Bill Scalia holds a PhD in American Literature from Louisiana State University. His most recent essays include “Toward a Semiotics of Poetry and Film: Meaning-Making and Extra-Linguistic Signification” (in Literature / Film Quarterly) and “Bergman’s Trilogy of Faith and Persona: Faith and Visual Narrative” in the anthology Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2008). Bill teaches writing and literature at St Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore, MD.