Slip Back Into Living: Glenda Burgess on JW Marshall’s Meaning A Cloud


Meaning a Cloud, J. W. Marshall, Oberlin College Press, 2008

“Seeing form with the whole body and mind, Hearing sound with the whole body and mind, One understands It intimately,” wrote Eihei Dogen, the Thirteenth Century Zen philosopher. J.W. Marshall’s Meaning a Cloud, winner of the 2007 Field Poetry Prize, welds raw experience to essential meaning in an unpretentious and unvarnished book of poems born from his own collision with the violent accidental, it’s aftermath, and the path through love and death he then follows.

The man is as thoughtful and spare as his poetry. I shared a meal with Marshall following the 2008 Get Lit! Literary Festival in Spokane, Washington, and the topics of conversation ranged from the relative obscurity of poetry in the national mind, to the interpretation of a poem by a reader as it differs from the poet’s. Marshall is co-owner of Open Books, a poetry bookstore in Seattle, Washington. It was his firm conviction that a poem, once given, belongs to the reader. Poetry is often a glance sideways into understanding, a glance into a mirror provided by the poet. The open spaces within the poet’s words ferry our minds into linkages that are deeply personal. The poem tosses a pebble in the pond and the ripples carry their own resonance. Marshall’s book, Meaning a Cloud, eviscerates our human need for precision in the obscure, exploring the emotional truth of physical pain, bodily dependency, the comfort of the quotidian and the indelible nature of habit. The love left within death.

In the three sections of Meaning a Cloud, “Blue Mouth,” “Where Else,” and “Taken With,” Marshall walks the trauma of violent injury, of confusion and the unknotting of the disordered mind. The poems are spare, of distinct imagery, simple words pressed into new meaning. In the poem “The Nightshift Nurse Brought Her Shoes to Work in a Paper Bag” Marshall writes, “…And I really did love how her professional shoes ached out loud like seagulls in the hall when she walked and that with the phone chimes sometimes and the elevator bell sometimes and sometimes my voice that needed her more that called nurse out to her but I know really wasn’t calling her but was calling nurse because of how calling nurse felt how righteous and pathetic it felt to call nurse from a dark room into a lit hall. What with all that I loved the sound of her shoes the shoes she put on for work that answered me.”

The poems progress through the regrouping of body and mind and Marshall writes of the new understandings that come with pain and recovery. He writes of the immediate paring down of his life in “Medic One” …“My saviors/ (because air must circulate)/ cut my clothing off—/No attachments.” This stark observation then segues into “Bare Tree at Green Lake,” in which Marshall offers us this, “What they call wood, call branches,/ I call leaves-asleep, call/ requisite thwarts.” Marshall is at his most bittersweet in those poems in which he writes of the slip back into living from which he feels alien and uncertain. “April” is but a three-line poem, a loose Haiku of nuance. The words frame the ache with which he now observes life, “Reading while walking/a fist of cherry blossoms/ punished her.”

In the last section of the book, Marshall moves more freely within his words, threading a strong and vivid connection between living and dying and love. His mother’s death anchors the center of the long poem that comprises “Taken With.” Marshall writes of his mother’s last breath, “Imagine how a rock becomes complete.” Never sentimental, never pitying, the language of J. W. Marshall’s book of poems is a plainspoken exploration of the fragility of existence itself, and in its fierce allegiance to the present, a song to the moment.

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