Donna Masini’s 4:30 Movie
((W.W. Nortons, 2018)
Some movies allow us to escape the otherwise inescapable realities of our lives. Others remind or inform us of experiences removed from our own. Still others provide a language and imagery that help articulate personal struggle. While all of these functions are evidenced in Donna Masini’s resonant new collection 4:30 Movie, the last is most central to the poet’s conception, whereby the confusions, frustrations, and anxieties that accompany grief are clarified through allusions to one of America’s favorite pastimes. Said grief concerns the death of Masini’s sister to cancer, a loss that compels the poet to ponder the frightening and inevitable prospects of the passage of time, which, as she notes in “Waiting Room,” is a “grim monitor”: “One day you’re drinking your first martini, / a minute later you’re roaming / some hospital wing.” Throughout 4:30 Movie, movies and one’s consumption of them provide apt metaphors for how our minds and bodies are subjected to unanticipated, often humiliating transformations.
Alternately referred to as films or pictures, movies emphasize motion and movement, streams of images and narratives that determine the fates of those projected on screen. Certain genres will determine whether those fates are incredible, spectacular, or horrific. In life, however, such structures aren’t determined in advance. Unsurprisingly, the collection’s opening poem, “Deleted Scene: Worry (.14),” exemplifies this anxiety: “All these years, my sister says, / worrying something would happen. / And now it has.”
There is, of course, a difference between viewing an artificially-constructed narrative and plodding through what seems, as we live it, an all-too variable life. In 4:30 Movie, Masini understands this difference and deconstructs it through surprising turns of memory and speculation. Her approach is powerful and perhaps best achieved with the book’s centerpiece, “The Blob,” a poem that is ostensibly about the Steve McQueen movie of that name, but which, in reality offers precise and occasionally fraught reflections on past and present fears. The poem’s opening lines weave these two strands together:
I’m a blob, our mother used to say, pregnant again with that
blobby wobble. We had siblings. We knew how a blob became a baby, the mother bulb
oozing out another child, and now there are four
and it’s Steve McQueen Week on the 4:30 Movie, The Blob
ending with its ominous question. The End? This was before
I understood irony. We’d seen the drunk old man
prod the ooze and disappear, watched it grow and roll, a little dog
barking its warning . . . barking, barking, then the barking stops
and the blob rolls on, insistent . . .
Beginning not with death but fecundity, “The Blob” engages the horrors of pregnancy, namely how a woman becomes a strange, even “monstrous,” mass to herself and others as she “oozes” out another mass that, in turn, has the potential to take an unsavory form. Appearing more than midway through the collection, the antagonizing entity of “The Blob” also alludes to the malignancy that has overtaken and killed Masini’s sister, a process movingly documented in earlier poems. However, in isolation, that blob could be anything—a body, an idea, or even Masini’s desire for McQueen. “I don’t remember how the horror was contained” she admits, both of the blob on screen and of an erotic hunger she struggles to understand and control. When later in the same poem the blob becomes a “bloated demagogue,” Masini’s coming-of-age anxieties fuse with the political present as a multitude of fears coalesce in an “Amorphous, devouring monster.”
In a similarly effective poem called “Movie,” such fears are redirected towards a desire to transform or transcend our circumstances. “We’re always waiting for the next thing / to change us,” the poet avers: “Facelifts, my ex-husband said last week, a new cure / for migraine.” Movies foreground such processes, but spoken language does, too: “[I]f you think in anagrams,” Masini observes, “parades and drapes, diapers and rape, / despair and aspire all come out of paradise.” The results can be magical, but also unpredictable, even terrifying: as “Movie” ends, the poet returns home from a film on subway car and thinks of the first lines from Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” in which, upon waking, Gregor Samsa is inexplicably transformed into a gigantic insect.
In addition to these two poems, Masini offers five deleted scenes that, like the one mentioned above, are epiphanic instances capturing either various stages of her sister’s decline or moments of grief that follow her death. Taken individually, each of these poems is imbued with the concise tension of an on-screen moment; collectively, they track the progress of grief through memory and reflection. Slightly more elaborate are the two poems called “Tracking Shot,” both of which achieve piercing, ironic affects by exploiting the cinematic device referred to in the title.
Elsewhere, Masini doesn’t restrict herself to such conceits. Some of the finest moments in 4:30 Movie engage elegy more directly. The strength of a poem like “Washing Her Hair” derives from its plainspoken simplicity:
I warm the lather
in my palm,
dampen the fine, last
strands—all she has
the suds, then
rinse, fold them
over my hand
(the way I’ll hold
the fading paper
made in first grade,
and lay it on its box)
from the ends up,
gently, so as to lose
not one strand.
Here, an intimate moment between the sisters is narrated as if it were unfurling before us; however, what we assume occurs in the present has in fact already been overtaken by the stock-taking ritual mentioned in parentheses. While jarring, the juxtaposition is affirmative, as both scenes are marked by an alert, delicate patience.
Whether Masini is citing certain cinematic tropes or drawing on still life paintings, as she does throughout “Water Lilies,” a fugue-like procession of lyric poems that conflate her sister’s “trials” with Monet’s landscapes, the poet never loses her remarkable control of form. Two of the collections best-known poems, “Mind Screen” and “Anxieties,” are steeped in vigorous word play that brilliantly clarifies yet joyfully undermines the “luckless toss of dice” explored in the former and the “no exit” nightmares of the latter. The precise phrasing that distinguishes “Woman on Cell Phone Dragging an Empty Cart Through Washington Square Park” imitates the gestures of a one-sided phone conversation while highlighting and isolating key details that invite the eavesdropper’s deeper considerations.
Agile, generous, and often dazzling, the poet’s mastery of various forms is just one way her poems achieve a certain distinction. Her relentless, almost Heraclitian engagement with how one attempts to persist in the face of impermanence is equally powerful, for the ultimate consequence of impermanence is the disintegration of form. Aware of this paradox, Masini engages and exploits it. Ultimately, that is one of many reasons why the poems in 4:30 Movie will be remembered long after the book is closed.