Book Review: In June the Labrynth (Cynthia Hogue)
Reviewed by Anne Kaier
In this powerful and demanding book of poetry, Cynthia Hogue gives us an unforgettable portrait of her mother, whom she calls Elle, the generic French word for "she"—and by implication for all women or an Ur woman or the essential woman. During this sequence of poems, Elle is ill, dying, and dead. The poems resonate for anyone who has watched a beloved parent—or anyone beloved person—fall sick, suffer, respond to sickness and die. What then are we left with? That is Hogue's central question. Where has the beloved gone, she asks.
Where has Elle, vast as horizon, flush,
The vivid metaphors not only show the ending of a life, the sunset, but also the fury and the plaintiveness with which Elle confronts her death. The portrait is vivid even as the portraitist, the poet, tries to follow her mother past the grave and winds up evoking her even more forcefully in life. Thankfully, Hogue gives us no easy answers. Instead, she continues to ask questions:
What language can one speak to the dead?
All we have is English and in Hogue's case—some French and occasional quotes from medieval English. That's all we have. Anyway, it's all I know. And yet we ask, again and again. We try to find the dead—so as not to lose them completely—if we loved them. Often the answer is silence—silence in any language. One way is prayer and Hogue tries it. Another is dreaming and dreams come to her.
C, Elle says, no ideas
Of course one of the more penetrating of ways to speak to the dead is through poetry and In June the Labyrinth is as much an elegy as Shelley's Adonais about Keats. These are poems of lamentation which probe the meaning of suffering, death, loss—and try to find a kind of immortality for the beloved dead. Shelley does it by asserting that Keats's radiance has not been lost.
The splendours of the firmament of time
Hogue does it by evoking her mother so vividly, in such spare language, as a woman with such complicated emotion. Here I quote in full the poem ("the bitter)" for its exhilarating expression of grief and passionate life-love.
"Here ends the year in hell
While the poet's urgency in this volume is firmly constrained by an indirect style which sometimes hides its subject matter, it also flares out, as in this poem, in startling forthright language. Hogue also uses some classic poetic devices. The labyrinth is a recurring metaphor. She had in mind the labyrinth carved on the floor of the central aisle or nave of the great medieval gothic Cathedral at Chartres in France. A labyrinth offers the foot soldier or pilgrim one way in and out, for some the one true way, the long and narrow road that heads to salvation. It is explicitly contrasted with a maze, which is merely a game, in which you can enter or exit in many different places and in which you are bound to get lost. At Chartres, the labyrinth is covered by small chairs now and then—people need to sit during Mass—but it remains a potent symbol of the questing journey. Here is what Hogue says about a visit while her mother was ill.
The instinct to pray is there even if the words are elusive. Hogue plays with the meanings of the word right, summoning the obsolete meanings in Old English and later its successor, Middle English, in which right means fitting. ["It is right and just O Lord"—the phrase that rings throughout the Mass, as if asking and getting the Lord's approval for what we the faithful are saying]. If the words with which she seeks to recall, regain and never lose her mother, need only be fitting—then in some way they will be right.
The words Cynthia Hogue in this volume of poems ar not always transparent, but they are both right and fitting.
Title: In June the Labrynth