Intrigue at an Impasse

Contributor’s Marginalia: Callie Siskel on “Magnolia” by Alessandra Lynch

What first drew me to Alessandra Lynch’s “Magnolia” was its stunning premise and first line: “A wedding broke out in the magnolia—” Often, first lines seem too desperate, begging us to suspend our disbelief. Lynch’s first line doesn’t give us the chance to protest. Her language is figurative but also matter-of-fact. She gives us metaphor and narrative in one fell swoop. She supplies color without adjectives and figures without people. She tempers beauty with brusqueness.

What I soon realized was that the poem delivers on what the first lines promises. “Magnolia” is built on the strength of its bold and unpredictable images: “The bells hung upside down. They’d choked/ on their own tongues.” The speaker doesn’t enter the poem until the third stanza. When she does she remains in the shadow of the magnolia, whose power is not supplanted by her presence. Lynch makes this clear syntactically and visually. The sentence that introduces the speaker inverts the subject and verb: “Hung too, on unspeaking terms/ with the air, I acknowledge the impasse—” The stark memory that follows the wind lifting the blossoms is indented so that it manifests dependence and vulnerability.

The memory is of the speaker as a four-year-old girl, holding up her skirt for her mother’s lover. She painfully remembers “trying to woo him.” The image in isolation fosters a series of connections, not unlike branches, that the reader can choose to follow or not to follow. “Magnolia” doesn’t have to cohere to be successful. Like all good poems, it resists summary and explanation.

Still, I felt inclined to read the signs, perhaps because the speaker, herself, is at an impasse. Though the wedding is happening in the magnolia, the speaker is wearing a “dress of paralysis.” The union of these two words represents one of Lynch’s strengths. Her poem is not determined by rhyme, but like-sounds suggest a world—just out of reach—where elements coalesce.

The speaker seems to be at wedding that is taking place in her mind. Either she is contemplating marriage or the idea is being forced upon her. The impasse is partly the memory of a childhood triangle: the speaker, her mother, and her mother’s lover. Where is the speaker’s father? Where is the speaker’s lover? The absence of husbands permeates the poem and makes the desperate statement, “Maybe I don’t want/ a voice at all,” even more poignant and complex. Perhaps the speaker’s own voice has been corrupted or usurped by men. Of course, this is an oversimplification, and luckily, it remains unsaid.

Lynch knows when she’s gone far enough. Just then the speaker returns to the magnolia and trails off, this time to a world where human voices have no power or purpose. “Magnolia” ends with three elliptical phrases, but after reading it we are left with definite images and associations. “A wedding broke out in the magnolia.” Pure and erotic, calm and urgent, “Magnolia” is a poem that refuses to settle but still manages to leave its pollen on our hands.

Callie Siskel

Callie Siskel lives in Baltimore and teaches creative writing at Johns Hopkins University, where she received her MFA in May 2013. Her poems appear or are forthcoming in Yale Review, 32 Poems, Passages North, New Criterion, Unsplendid, and other journals. She is currently working on her first book of poems.