I’ll be your plumber and your guide
through pipelines of intimacy revived.
Now let’s play
a curative game.
I promise I won’t make you dance
to the memories of your abuse.
Dark Square, Peter Marcus’s first collection, surveys the emotional terrain of a doctor. Acting as a present-day Virgil, Marcus has the reader witness therapy sessions, wings of hospitals, rehabilitation centers; he introduces the afflicted by name; and, like Virgil, he brings us back out. The suffering of his many patients, what’s hidden and subsequently revealed, move these powerful narratives.
Freud is present throughout both thematically—the book’s section titles suggest his major works—and in epigraph. Even as the narrator travels, as he does within “Borders and Crossing,” the voyeuristic reader follows, sees, and learns intimately of the people and patients encountered. As the emotional register reaches a peak, Marcus’s conversational tone keeps these poems from launching into forced empathy. Marcus’s lines often read unadorned as if they are spoken directly:
She walks into my office, crying.
This moment, like others throughout Dark Square, holds the reader under the present tense of distress. Reading these poems one is in the clutch of some painful admission, then abruptly distanced from it. The speaker, when he seems to come too close, names “the billable clock,” his diploma, his “language tool,” in an attempt to distinguish himself from torment. There is safety in these marks of difference, or at least, the speaker would like for these strict delineations to exist.
The speaker asserts he can “uncover all these girls alive beneath the rubble,” yet he wavers and asks of the reader, “How should a therapist respond”? Accountability is placed on the reader, who, entering the voice, is either “uncovering” or failing to do so. Marcus tells us, “My patient remained inconsolable through the hour.” The possessive determiner “my,” often used, brings one to question what is it that one possesses of another person?
Marcus writes into this question from the perspective of relationships. The poem “The Affair” begins, “I want what I want when I want it. This is not a song.” Yet the Irving Berlin lyric speaks to a libido that acts as irrational pull, Freud’s id. In this light, lovers provide consolation and reward though not without risk. Beware of “Harpies / dressed in evening wear, vicious teeth.”
Vicious or otherwise, the poems of the section “Eros Stricken” invoke the female in the fashion of a blason: she is skin, eyes, mouth, all invitation. Yet Marcus writes beyond the body and into the complexity of the speaker’s relationships—within these poems sex is not invariably an exercise in dominance; these connections are revered and central.
Often in neat tercets or couplets, charged with “luscious nudes,” Marcus acknowledges the intensity and weight of desire. These poems are not out to seduce the reader though, unless one responds to lines such as: “I know her pastor couldn’t comfort her like this” (“Petite Mort”).
Such is the challenge of writing love poems that remain sexy while being read in the cold, acerbic light of, say, the subway. The stunning poem “The Embrace,” however, caught this reader off guard. Here, the scene opens with a man writhing, bucking, and spewing expletives at orderlies. Once the patient is carried away, perhaps his plan (“he is asking for this”), Marcus writes, “I admire the empty straitjacket / flaccid on the gurney.” Dark Square forces us to ask, how does one receive comfort, compassion, an embrace, unless one directly asks for it? The poem ends with an imperative.
Strap me down
under buckle & belt.
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