True Ugliness: Cate Marvin’s Oracle
by KT Billey
People are fucked up and funny, and so is the world. This is a fact that Oracle (Norton, 2015), Cate Marvin’s third and most recent collection of poems, bestows upon us, and it’s clear from the get-go that anyone looking for soothsaying better look elsewhere.
Or consider what soothsaying means. The very first line throws us into a sharp, observant speaker who sees and understands being seen:
As the leering boss poised by a photocopier…
There is no false advertising in this book’s truth-promise title, nor are these poems riddles. “On the Ineptitude of Certain Hurricanes,” the introductory poem, sets a scene for many readers—likely the east coast, a couple years ago, but if not in a particular time and place, surely in a post-natural disaster mood. A bit of dread and relief, perhaps, but mostly attitude. This human dares to critique the performance of nature, which also assumes that Hurricanes have a function—can we be inept without a set purpose? This kind of quick-thinking spurs the entire collection, propelling us forward with a critical, perceptive wit that doesn’t care if we get it or agree.
In a book full of relationships—and their slicing and dicing—that not-caring is a testament to Marvin’s articulate skill. High school, divorce, patriarchy, classism, love, motherhood—these poems are full of boyfriends and terrible encounters, yet there is a remove at work, and a knack for choosing details that put the interpretation and consequences in our hands. Over and over, we are presented not with opinions but practical matters of fact:
Take some sleeping pills, spare your mother the blood grief.
…an egg chipped at the edge
of a bowl, so that when I spill out all saffron, slide
to the corner bodega to buy a forty, no one but me
notices me, for I am crawling beneath the window…
…I don’t drink tea,
but I can brew it…
He was suckled with corn syrup instead of breast milk.
I think of him at the polls.
These poems are as harsh and political as titles like “High School as a Dead Girl,” “The Hamptons,” and “Dead Girl Gang Bang” would make us hope, but there is no soapbox. The point is not to be political, but to present moments. The poems tug on our limbs and scraps and we feel it because we’ve experienced our own versions of their dynamics. Emotional ties, cities, inescapable selves—all that is ill-advised and inevitable.
Many of these moments are gendered phenomena, things that happen to daughters, mothers, girls, and women who are taught to think of themselves as girls for as long as possible. Yet there is a deft lack of direct call-out. The tone isn’t indignant, it’s a chuckle in the dark corner of a bar, and all the more condemning.
It’s tough reading at times. The poems evoke disgust not at the world or its particular outrages, but at the general acceptance of them. They say look, this is the way things are—shit happens. There is a daughter splayed in a Buick this very second, death threats are part of the deal. This is why Marvin’s humour is so crucial and effective—it keeps us grinning, and shows to us how to endure. Humor, and obstinancy. The stubborn insistence to keep living, to spend time with daughters and sidewalks and wine. Failing to do so would be letting them win, those who would be villians if they knew what was wrong, but also because that’s life. Shades of blue and red recur in bars and cop cars, calling to mind those early 3D glasses. Appropriate enough, given the vivid structures—high school shop class, hotel rooms, hospitals—these poems lead us through, forcing us to see what we might not want to name. Because
…If you can’t avoid being invaded, why not
extend an invitation to your destoyer?
There is awareness and honesty, an owning up, but also owning, period.
Not that there is a lack of romance. The surroundings are harsh, but not gratuitously so, and Marvin presents them in all their mundane glory. We see the space between fantasy and reality, the acid rain above the skyline. The flimsy lack of happily ever after isn’t a loss, but there is a reckoning, an assessment of fairy tale tropes that puts its tongue in our collective cheek with titles like “Some Day My Prince Will Come,” and closures like:
…I failed to admit the beach
here is littered with syringes. This is my good-bye.
I wish I lived in a little house in the sea. But I do.
The book is also a lesson in sonics and a mixing syntax that let sound and sense association carry it, and us, along.
…I am no friend. According to them. Accordion, the
child pulls its sitting wind between its opposite
Descriptions of trash are elegantly exact. Lyricism is undercut by blunt vernaculars, and the combination is both effective and fun to read.
…You passed out from the fumes.
Now I’m thigh-deep and slick, no, sick in the pit
of her religion. She traded your eyes in for the last
Payday (stale) the vending machine had to offer.
I wouldn’t call this book morbid. Morbid is “an unhealthy interest in disturbing and unpleasant subjects” but that is one of the greatest questions that Marvin raises: Is it healthier to turn a blind eye? Are death and disease, both physical and social, better served by ignorance? Of course not, Oracle says. If it bothers us, it’s because she’s onto something. These poems hold our squeamishness up to the light, and nothing is off limits. Not even our “Poetry Machines.” Hallelujah.
As the book zeroes in there is the sense of advice being passed down, particularly to girls. The stellar final poem “Next of Kin” does much with the idea of inheritance. Rather than bemoaning the shitty world we eventually deliver to our children, this poem is an empowerment of the next. Armed with Marvin’s frank approach to the state of affairs, the up-coming kid is capable. Not in spite of her girlishness—her plastic cookies and pink bibs—but because of it. Oracle is a thing that divines, so she know’s what’s up. She can spit you up anywhere, and will.
Read this book. It dares you.
K.T. Billey moved from rural Alberta, Canada, to study poetry at Columbia University, where she is now a Teaching Fellow. Poems have appeared in CutBank, The New Orleans Review, Phantom Limb, Ghost Proposal, Prick of the Spindle, the sensation feelings journal, and H.O.W. Journal. Translations have appeared in Palabras Errantes. She is proud to be a Girls Write Now mentor.