Untamable and Unnamable: Orogeny by Irène Mathieu
The word “orogeny” comes to us via Ancient Greek words meaning— mountain and genesis, and refers to the geological process through which mountains are created. In order to create mountains, however, the earth’s crust must be deformed, a rupturing occurs, one tectonic plate crumples against another and is forced upwards. The violence inherent in this word is deepened by Irène Mathieu’s introduction to her debut collection Orogeny, in which she describes Pangaea, an earth goddess, as well as the first woman. Here is the platform from which all poems in Orogeny must be considered: the mountain, often a border between countries as well as a masculine symbol, becomes suspect, a kind of deformity, a source of pain. Here also, is a metaphor for the struggle inherent in any creation. This goddess Mathieu proposes has her own language, one no longer pronounceable, which the goddess attempted but ultimately failed to pass down. The poems of Orogeny are children of this mythological mother, the body and the self it contains dissolvable within her.
Mathieu’s Pangaea is a marvelous creation. Within her is a world once undivided, where our modern borders, both physical and those created by nations, do not exist. In “pieces” she writes, “You cannot imagine / the ache that wholeness, / rent, left,” and yet with each page Mathieu describes that ache until we can imagine it. People have always turned to mythmaking in times of crisis, to bring order amid violence and destruction. What makes Orogeny so remarkable is the way in which Mathieu embodies her earth goddess, with great stores of empathy and understanding. In one of the opening poems of the collection, “primum non nocere,” the fundamental principle of bioethics which means— first, do no harm, is applied to the earth herself as well as to all mothers. Mathieu reminds us, “the opposite of love / is power” and therefore, “a mother // must be prepared / to be powerless / and terrified / at all times.” She then turns our attention to the physical characteristics of the hibiscus and the hummingbird and how the mother is both of them: “a whole ecosystem / mirrored behind your eyes.”
The poems in Orogeny transcend the realm of the personal I through a more broadly encompassing you. Though the you in these poems is at times replaced with the I, the I even when not directly Pangaea, nevertheless evokes her. Therefore, though some of the poems could stand alone outside of this collection, all of the poems take on a more significant resonance once situated within the framework of the lost language of Pangaea. And what a beautiful language it is:
the weakest part of the body is the
eye, a tiny globe of tragedy and
ash, the shambled house of his
name’s memories— the rot of the race.
every millennium I sigh with regret—
oh, consciousness, a luscious devil,
you fog around the sweet, sweet apple
studded with worm, let my horses go,
let them forget everything they ever
Throughout Orogeny, there is a purposeful lack of capitalization in the poems which refutes the authority of received forms. Though Mathieu does capitalize proper nouns, she does so reluctantly, proper nouns are viewed with suspicion, as if no human word could properly name a place on Pangea’s surface. Contemporary poets often search for symmetry, clean looking orderly lines, but Mathieu rejects this containment, and yet there is an organic order within each poem. Mathieu’s forms are rarely received, but instead bubble up to the surface through the psychical content of the poem itself. No one poem mirrors another.
Mathieu concludes her lyrical collection on a prelude, indicating this story has only just begun, that it circles back into itself and will be altered in its retelling, as she indicated in earlier in the collection this is “a universe composed of circles.” In “prelude” the speaker longs to get closer to the wild, “over here, the stars / in my lungs were saying” and ultimately the speaker discovers she was more at home outside— in the overgrowth, in the valley, alongside the bayou which once went under a different name. In the best of ways, Irène Mathieu’s debut collection Orogeny is untamed, and within that wildness there is an original voice calling out from atop her own mountains, and from the depths of her own unnamable valleys.
Trembling Pillow Press
Brunch: The end of summer is always marked for me by plums. The site of a plum has me pulling out my fall jackets and boots and thinking dreamily of the leaves changing colors. Plums and nectarines are sliced and served with drunken goat cheese and a sheep milk cheese, alongside smoked salmon, fig as well as multigrain crackers, spiced walnuts, and a medley of olives.