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The Book of Ocean by Maryrose Larkin

Numbers. Language. Gadgets. Science, technology, identities, clothes: is human essence enhanced by culture? Does civilization satisfy the yearnings of the spirit? The Book of Ocean’s instinctive answer to such questions is a wistful and plaintive “no”—but not for the reasons one might expect. These poems dwell on human fabrications because they must, being fabrications themselves. Myth and history, religion and inquiry—in Ocean, all become shadows blocking memory’s light. As a result, Maryrose Larkin’s first book is a prism of paradox, a poetry aware of its own disguise.

At first glance, Ocean appears arbitrary, capricious. Lines whiplash; margins recoil. Punctuation is a lonely wallflower. The themes of “brief gravity,” the opening poem, seem less than surprising:

I rhyme with the ground

and all at once it falls

apple I am apple

apple severed from tree

not the snake or the woman but the tree itself is discovery

a force based on the world

But this first poem is, appropriately, just the beginning of a controlled descent: an unraveling of the constructs of material culture, a return to the “ocean” of spiritual essence. Nothing humans make is sacred here. Yet within this nihilism, paradoxically, there is longing—in fact, longing might be all we have. Humans, like the stars in “Night House,” materialize as “objects made of their own memory.”

It is Larkin’s considerable skill with paradox that saves Ocean from the weight of its philosophical themes. She divides her book into smaller “books,” and some of those books into titled sections, providing the illusion of a narrative arc, yet the poems themselves grow increasingly erratic in style, so that reading the book from cover to cover is like watching disintegration enacted on the page.

So: a writing style that at first appears random turns out to be shrewdly deliberate. Chaos rises from the ashes of order; wordless ideas rise between Larkin’s words. “From Stars” insists that earthly bodies are “the bottle where we’re kept.” In “Eating Music” we become “an annotation,” an unliving replica of our living selves. The Book of Ocean urges memory beyond notation, beyond language and “ornament” to a purer “description.” This is a despair that feels like serenity, an abandonment of self that reads like a prayer. If

we are walking the distance from here to random

as “Alphabet Walking” unequivocally claims, then Larkin’s book embodies that journey.

The Book of Ocean does not come easy. Its fragmented delivery has a logic of its own, and in its weaker moments (“Origin and Frame,” “Pulse for Two Voices”) that logic falters. Frequently, devices like mixed fonts and random hyphens can’t escape a certain attitude of manipulation. But Maryrose Larkin’s work here is brave, rich, multifaceted—an odyssey of imagination well worth the traveling.

laura polley