Review: Spirituality and science in Marilyn McCabe's "Perpetual Motion"

In Perpetual Motion (The Word Works, 2012), Marilyn McCabe leads us to the burning bush and asks us to consider its cellular makeup, its energy, its creator, and our own wonder for it.

McCabe’s poems are insistently questioning, with a spiritual investment in each question that energizes her book and reminds us of how little we really know—“how we parse this profane world.” Her poems want to understand how the universe works—from the smallest levels of bones and milkweed pods to the highest reaches of cosmology, gravity, and the movement of the galaxies.

Why do humans walk upright instead of “dachschund[ing] along the ground?” she asks. “What color are we at the cellular level?” Where does hatred come from? And, of course, the age-old question: What happens to our energy when we die—

“How far will we go in the endless space,/or will we lie like sweat on the living,/beading on skin and shining?”

Cyclical lines that fold back in on themselves reflect the mental acrobatics of McCabe’s speaker, pondering topics as large as the very nature of consciousness:

“and wonder why we developed the consciousness to ask why/we developed the consciousness to ask why we developed/that consciousness”

and as tiny as the beauty of a wasp’s nest:

“You build us to build you to build us to build you.”

Indeed, one of the most striking elements of McCabe’s book is its scope, and the ways the poems zoom in and back out again with striking fluency. We leap from Silly Putty to the Orion Nebula. Anxiety over the future death of a lover is compared to the Big Bang. Musings over the theory of relativity eventually lead to McCabe creating a physics equation of her own, about an antagonistic relationship between two neighbors, in “The Human Equation.”

This book walks through the woods, through museums, through Marie Curie’s laboratory, and through art studios. The epistemological and ontological concerns are pressing yet quiet, serious yet often funny, as well.

In “Perseveration,” for example, McCabe’s speaker is “dizzy” from the recognition of her own smallness in this enormous universe. The questioning reaches a fever pitch that lands in an unexpected, but decidedly honest and realistic consolation:

“if our brain has a center whose tendency/is toward believing in a higher power does that disprove the existence of God,/or prove it? So I get an ice cream cone, and why not”

McCabe’s work is just as often concerned with the individual experience as with the experience of humanity—with the quiet moments beside a lover as well as the greater turmoils of a violent, chaotic world. In many ways, McCabe’s poems ask us to consider the ways we are all part of the same earth and the same stardust, the ways we comply to the laws of cellular biology and the laws of physics:

“Won’t this stream I splash through/become the sea we cruise/in great yachts, then muddy/waste of Madagascar marsh,/the turgid Sunderbans?” she writes.

In one poem, she collages material from Marie Curie’s letters and journal entries and adopts Curie’s voice, inhabiting the mind of another woman exploring these same questions with the obsession of a scientist—an obsession that, McCabe seems to tell us, only differs from the artist’s obsessions in approach. A lover’s soul, for example, is termed his “nonmaterial not-brain,” while the body is called a “visible sign of invisible/reality.”

As its title suggests, McCabe’s book is in perpetual motion—questioning and questioning the act of questioning, creating beauty and considering the act of creating beauty.

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