The Fruit of the Real

On the Russian dolls nested in the poems of Maureen N. McLane


To write autobiography is always to create a fictional character, even though the name of the character—“I”—disguises that fact. Conversely, creating a character, removed from the author by an invented name, can be a way of writing autobiography: fiction as a way of getting at the real.

The history of the novel is full of examples. But poetry is another matter. Because the first person is the default option in lyric poems, it’s rare to see a poet write about herself under the cover of a fictional character. That’s what Maureen N. McLane is doing, however, when she names her character “Mz N” after her own middle initial. It’s as if Mz N were the private person hidden in McLane’s public identity, a self inside the poet’s self, like a Russian doll. Yet the title “Mz” keeps her at a distance, and the flirtatiously terse initial offers less than full disclosure.

Mz N made an early appearance in McLane’s first collection of poems, Same Life (2008). There we find Mz N reading Wordsworth, and the reference is helpful. Even though “Mz N has never seen / the Alps nor Snowdon,” her story, like The Prelude, is about the growth of a poet’s mind. It involves a young woman coming to terms with suburban childhood, school, her body, “bad sex,” the highs and lows of urgent longing, and a speculative turn of mind.

The Mz N poems that follow carry the story further (they come from the forthcoming Mz N: The Serial, McLane’s fourth poetry collection). In “Mz N Nothing,” McLane jokes about her own narrative device. Announcing that the poem will establish a scene and characters, as a novel would, she describes Mz N eating lunch as she muses on last night’s un-kissed “lithe lovely” whose “purple sheath” “hugged her ass / like the plumskin the plum.” (The compressed syntax neatly conveys that alluring tightness.) But then, pushing beyond the anecdote to speak about her reasons for writing, McLane slips into the first person and makes a “contract” with her reader: to share her life with us, in honor of the common hunger not so much for the plum as what it signifies, “the fruit / of the real.”

There’s a nice ambiguity in that genitive phrase. It could mean that the real is the fruit we are all after, and that fictions like “Mz N” fall away once we grasp it. Or it could mean that what we want is not the real but the fruit it bears. This would include Mz N herself, standing in for the semi-fictional character that is anyone’s inconsistent, durable self, invented over time. So “life” (which is always a life story) emerges from what McLane calls “the full ecosystem / of labor and erotics,” work and love, in which each of us is immersed.

Read Three Poems by Maureen McLane

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Langdon Hammer, the Niel Gray Jr. Professor of English at Yale, is the poetry editor of the Scholar and the author of James Merrill: Life and Art.


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