In June the Labyrinth by Cynthia Hogue
Red Hen Press, 2017; 76 pp
Reviewed by Edward A. Dougherty
In June the Labyrinth, Cynthia Hogue’s ninth poetry collection deals with grief: in the two years following the death of her mother, five dear friends also passed from Hogue’s life. A requiem for Elle, this book is also a ritual walk through a formal labyrinth, a wander in the gray-zones that Orpheus sang from. It is rich and deep and complex. The personal reaches for the mythic while the abstract seeks ground, as when she asks “When you aren’t here / and I call you to mind, / can you hear me?” By directly addressing someone, “you” seems particular, but putting the word in italics also generalizes “you” to all who have been lost; simultaneously, the question itself draws grief into the immediacy of metaphysics.
In one dream sequence near the end of the book, Elle reminds the speaker that there are “no ideas // but in dreams. / No connection but in this field of / associations, tendered, for example.” The playful twist on Williams’ maxim and the verbal richness of “tender” demonstrate the expert texture of Hogue’s work. Such metaphysical questions are not idle when longing is so strong.
The labyrinth is a perfect metaphor for this experience. The dead are on their sacred journey, but loss sets the living on their own sojourn. When walking a formal labyrinth, we take steps and make progress, but we’re also circling what seems to be the same ground. It feels like a maze, but it’s not. Hogue distinguishes the two, saying “Only one is for pilgrimage. // The other’s a game.”
In the opening poem, Hogue sets out to travel to a literal labyrinth. And the difference between tourism and pilgrimage is likewise subtle but essential, one of purpose. “I am not here…” the speaker declares, “to window-shop but to wager my words for life.” With this intent, the book moves through landscapes and language, through memory and narrative, and through hurt and forgiveness, where “Everything looped, spiraled, circular (thought).”
In that first poem, the travelers “couldn’t find / the cathedral with the labyrinth,” which establishes the feeling of being lost. But by remembering incidents, exploring the etymology of words, and continuing to dialogue with the lost, there is a kind of arrival in In June the Labyrinth because by “the rose”. When the speaker says “Elle treads the spirals,” it’s no longer clear if this is a recalled incident or a mythic afterlife. There is comfort in having the divide healed, knowing the lost one has arrived, and now feeling more at home in being bereft.
The design leads to this arrival. The lines that cross on the labyrinth’s rose, dividing the circle and marking the petals, establish “the ground of the labyrinth.” In all of these ritual pathways, we arrive at a center, but must unwind our way back into ordinary life, which here are presented in images. Elle warms a rosy crystal heart in her hands, “she starts / to sing her // heart out.” On the page, the last words of tabbed to the right, away from the body of the poem. There is connection but only in a field of associations. In the next poem, the speaker declares that Elle was on “her pilgrimage to // feel // love alone” and in the end there is “World’s largess. Chalice full: / Love all / one.” Is this arrival a statement of faith in Elle’s faith, as the italicized words are her speaking? Or has the speaker turned to prayer for Elle? In these fields, it seems that lines have arrows on both ends.