Natalie Vanderbiltís The Most Secret Window is a tour de force. I first encountered this remarkable project in a workshop at the Taos Writers Conference and quickly realized that I was reading something out of the ordinary. Its American precursors are Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Edwin Arlington Robinson, the contemporary epics of George Keithley, Brenda Marie Osbey, Frederick Pollack, and David Mason, and the Irish dramas of W. B. Yeats.
Like all of these ancestors, Vanderbilt creates an evocative world that enriches a readerís existence beyond measure. The receptive reader will find her perception of time and passion forever changed. As Yeats memorably wrote, ďA terrible beauty is born.Ē
Set in San Francisco and Maine, The Most Secret Window presents the story of a shipping magnate, Grayson, and his Maine lover, Lara, whom he has never met except in dreams.
Graysonís is a life of unforgiving structure and responsibility. His shipping empire is under constant attack by a brutal adversary, Selby. His real-time woman, Catherine, is a beautiful, emotionally remote individual with a steely heart and an agenda that contains her own self-interest. His best friend (best since boyhood) and business lieutenant lacks the imaginative depth to commiserate with his heartache. Only in his dreams, in the seductive, compassionate arms of Lara, is Grayson able to find expansive love and serenity. This impossible gift grants him the space he needs to develop his own compassion, not just for his lover, but for all beings. The storyís relentless tension arises from his impossible yet inevitable travel from one world to the other and back again.
We are familiar with tales that transport us back and forth in time and dimension, but few stories come to us with such exquisite, tormenting balance. That is what this epic poem is all about: balancing passions and ambition. How does one open oneself wholly to love in a world that reduces love to an amusement or a business transaction, something partaken of in the dark, small hours between stages of combat and acquisition? How does one literally make time for love when one is so thoroughly conditioned for conquest? Inevitably, those who cannot break through the veil end up settling for less.
Her lips pressed to his and stirred to life
When one opens oneself to love, one surrenders the requirements of old paradigms and becomes a new person. That new being does not fit in an emotional straitjacket or war zone.
Such a person may not fit in any concept we recognize. Graysonís conflict is itself epic, exhilarating and tragic in its many scenes and acts, and Lara, despite the ethereal fact of her presence, becomes somehow more real to us than all of the other very real characters in the story. Though Vanderbiltís zest for jarring, brutal action scenes periodically shocks us, though the San Francisco she paints is weirdly fascinating, it is the lovers themselves who compel us to read on. There is an elusive urgency in human emotion that few writers are really successful in fully recognizing and bringing to life in poems. Vanderbilt is one of the few. In this epic tale she creates a compassionate, passionate alternative to a world that too often dozes in dreamless sleep.
The universe is smaller
ROBERT MCDOWELL is the author of three collections of poetry, Quiet Money, The Diviners and On Foot, In Flames. The editor of Poetry After Modernism and Cowboy Poetry Matters, he is also the founding publisher and editor of Story Line Press.
Copyright © Natalie Vanderbilt 2009