The Light in Our Houses
Al Maginnes

Pleaides Press, $12

"Whatever our lives do to us, they do it / so slowly we do not see it happening, / the way history is finally / one day coming after another," writes Al Maginnes in The Light in Our Houses, winner of the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Poetry Series from Pleaides Press. These lines, from a poem titled "Chasing Johnny Armstrong," serve as a keyhole into Maginnes’ poetics: an earnest voice, spare style, and a solemn concern for history. These unifying characteristics offset a sense of mystery and tragedy that manifests itself much as "our lives" do in the previous excerpt, by unveiling grief before we become aware enough to avert our eyes. The voice in these poems is a voice that mourns the past, usually personal tragedies such as childlessness or the loss of loved ones. Some of these poems linger upon the plight of strangers and historical figures. In one poem, a mad preacher known as "The Goat Man" haunts the narrator’s memory. Another poem depicts guitar legend Robert Johnson making a deal with the Devil at a dusty, rural crossroads. Maginnes’ poems are as distinctly American as Edward Hopper’s paintings: his characters and landscapes are generally bathed in light. Our urge is to revel in the clarity brought about by such radiance, but, like Hopper, Maginnes never allows us to ignore the sense of emptiness and foreboding that lurks in the recumbent shadows of each composition. Maginnes calmly posits that our lives must merge with these shadows, that our present mind is informed by and in fact weaves with past tragedies. The poet clarifies this position best in a poem titled "The Names of History," when he concludes, "Yet what we have named history / was once only the braided rivers / of people’s lives, currents that brimmed / fast and dangerous, then emptied / into the wide blank spill of ocean."

David Roderick has published critical reviews and essays in Agni, Black Warrior Review, Boston Book Review, Boston Review and Chelsea. He is the 2000-2001 Reginald Tickner Writing Fellow at the Gilman School in Baltimore.