Little Boxes Made of Darkness and Light
Marni Ludwig’s chapbook, Little Box of Cotton and Lightning, explicitly references the interplay of darkness and light in Joseph Cornell’s box art—each poem reads like a modest package of whimsical sense & sinister intention—but the title also reminds me of Malvina Reynolds’s song “Little Boxes,” which offers a grim portrait of suburban conformity under the guise of a catchy folk song. That also seems to be a characteristic of Ludwig’s poems—the subtle ways they plunge a knife into the sentimental, the socially familiar, the whole time singing and laughing.
The erotic often bears down on Ludwig’s poems, and the lovers in these poems tend to be dark, austere, and somewhat inarticulate. They possess a gravitas that is both mystical and severe. Take, for instance, this example from “Clinic”:
We trade our shadows for days
of suddenness. A bird got in my blood,
a tricky one, with a split tongue.
Now it doesn’t get dark
because you shut your mouth.
Both the speaker and “you” are enveloped in shadows that seem instantaneous and inevitable, and the bird in the blood speaks both to a poet’s sensibility (we poets often think of ourselves as birds) and a sense of being infected. The poet’s curse as an avian infection—Ludwig masterfully twists the cliché, illustrating what being a poet feels like in contemporary terms. Yet the dynamic between the lovers is classic: the “you” controls heaven and hell, makes both for the speaker.
Going back to boxes, which recur in the poems and as poem titles, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my favorite poem in the collection, the simply titled “Pill Box.” This poem meditates on what it means to be a woman, and far from being overly familiar, Ludwig manages to mix Sexton’s quiet contempt for the artifacts of gender with a Bishopian eye. Simply put, some lines are seething protest, while others are almost sterile in how they account for the speaker’s sense of location.
The first line—“Every wife is a still life”—is both; it’s flat in its pronouncement, yet blistering in its critique. The message is simple: women with men being frozen, stuck, beautiful decoration for the homes they occupy. Ludwig gets a lot of mileage out of a few words. Fitting, since most of her poems are content to take up a single page. “Pill Box” ends with a stanza reminiscent of Plath’s “The Mirror,” a terrific poem about the terror women have, or are taught to have, for aging:
How agreeable you are,
lying cold on the bathroom floor
thanking your mirrors and corners.
The pileup of “r” sounds at the end of each line drive the severity, the cutting-to-the-quick home. The domestic space is captor and tormentor, and women entering it develop Stockholm syndrome for all the pretty, delicate accoutrements that surround them. They can’t tell that they’re cold. They can’t see the menace shimmering just below their reflection.