To write a tidy summary of Being Many Seeds (Grayson Books, 2020) by Marilyn McCabe is a difficult task because this chapbook examines everything: life and death, Earth and the universe, and our place within it all. “Everything” may not be the right word. Rather, these poems are concerned with everythingness: the connections between all living and nonliving things on Earth.
The second poem in the collection captures a scene of a young man riding a bike while “rain plunks everything / greening around him and pink / magnolia lets loose a petal high / crow transects his route the pedaler / glimpses it all upside down in a puddle.” The simultaneity of these images creates a sense of unity among all that is in motion: the pedaler pedaling, the magnolia letting loose a pedal, the crow flying. None is privileged above the other, and the brief glimpse of the scene in the puddle suggests we may only ever catch accidental glances of the intricacy and magnificence of the Earth’s processes happening all around us.
“All things are in process,” the narrator tells us. This line comes not from a poem but from an essay thread that runs along the bottom of each page, almost like footnotes. The essay begins as a reflection on the philosophies of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit priest and scientist, who studied physics and evolution through a spiritual perspective. The narrator tells us Teilhard believed “we are our own selves, but? and? we are a part of the system of each other, the earth, and the heavens.” The use of “but? and?” reveal the tension and uncertainty inherent to examining our origins. Are we, as humans, protagonists in the story of the universe, or merely its products? Teilhard’s questions––who are we and why are we here?––become a lens through which to read the poems.
As the essay continues, the narrator engages with Teilhard’s ideas more directly, and the essay becomes a conversation. Teilhard asserts “evolution seems to favor the cooperative group” and “humanity is evolving toward greater interdependence,” and the narrator agrees: “Certainly ants have taken over my backyard.” However, while they both have similar questions, their conclusions diverge. Teilhard believes God is the power behind evolution, but the narrator tells us, “I cannot make that leap with him.” As the narrator finds distance from Teilhard’s philosophies, this turn complicates our lens for reading the poems, and asks that we read them in a new way.
While Teilhard looks back, the narrator looks to the now. The poems illuminate the ways humans are entangled with Earth and the universe: there is a focus on “what is” rather than “why.” Not that she doesn’t wonder “why,” as she compares her questions to “burning” stars, but ultimately, as she says, “I am this name unasked.” Her questions remain burning, unanswerable.
Each page features three poems: a poem, a second version of the poem with some text redacted, and a third version with more text redacted. Sometimes the third version is made up of only a few words from the original poem. The redacted words are replaced with white space, and the remaining words float on the page, intimate yet immediate. Through the erasure, we find clarity. As the poem transforms on the page, it reminds me of the process of decomposition: something complex breaking down into something seemingly simple. On one page, the first poem ends with the lines “Space itself insensate, we beings / forget we’re light.” The erased poem reads: “I am / light.” A change happens between the first and third poem as the narrator finds the confidence to assert she is made of the same materials as stars.
The final page of the collection begins with the lines “So much grows here. I have been / a tree in this oasis,” speaking to the kinship the narrator feels with the planet. After two erasures, the poem has been reduced to “I have been / many / seeds.” The decomposed version of this poem suggests the cyclical nature of existence. But there’s something about this line that rings with possibility, that implies that we are always growing, changing, starting. What begins as a reflection on interconnectedness ends with a reminder that “we each are systems in the process of becoming,” as the narrator tells us in one of her conversations with Teilhard.
Watching each poem transform on the page is a delightful experience, and when reading the final poem on each page, I must remind myself that what feels new is old, and the words hanging in the white space were sourced from the poem at the top of the page. The language is playful and tender, but at times heavy with the search for meaning that remains elusive. This collection speaks to anxieties about our origins and about the future of our planet, while at the same time celebrating all the wonder we bear witness to while we’re here. As McCabe says, “We only have a short time together / under this dazzling pretend heaven.” So bring your unanswerable questions to this chapbook, and let them burn, like stars.
Kathleen Gullion is a writer based in Houston. Her work has appeared in the Esthetic Apostle, Coachella Review, F Newsmagazine, and others. She holds a Master of Fine Arts from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.