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"Magdalene—The Seven Devils" by Marie Howe

I. Share your text. 

"Magdalene—The Seven Devils" by Marie Howe

I first read this poem in The American Poetry Review. I reread it and reread it. I printed it out and put it on my wall. I printed an extra copy. Then another. I pulled it out at parties. Slipped it into people's bags. I annotated. I was curious about how designing a cover for this poem could enchance my understanding of the work, how accessing the written material through visual means could help me achieve a more complete experience.  

II. Share your annotations. 

What I keep coming back to about this poem is its seeking, its compulsive need to identify the root cause of sadness, its sense of isolation—how palpable it all is. The "cheesecloth to breathe through"—this want to filter the outside world before it enters the interior landscape—emphasizes the distance the speaker feels between herself and everything else. Even the smallest creatures—the aphid, the mosquito, the ants—are cause for visceral response, a turning inward—to be simultaneously disgusted and consumed by something. We work our way forward through the list of devils, then jump back, only to move forward again. A searching, a striving, to address—finally—the hidden, the underneath, that still brings no solace. 

III. Share your sketches. 

I keep coming back to the mood of isolation, alienation. The mood. The mood. The mood.  

IV. Share your early designs. 

A couple early ideas, I ended up really disliking. (Below, top row.) I thought, "Hey, Mary Magdelene. Let's see her on the cover." Too literal, limiting, stagnant. 

So, back to the beginning. Yes, the poem starts with a biblical reference, but then it moves to the hyper-personal. This juxapostion got me thinking about collage, putting seemingly disparate images side-by-side. A play with the tension between chaos and contraint. I put together a couple collages using statue imagery from a 1970s history of art textbook. The statue faces—incredibly emotive, yet eerily still. Raw and silent, simultaneously. (Below, bottom row.)

And more...

I kept moving forward. The mood. The mood. I was finding what felt right (below). I tried to tap into the extreme sense of alienation from the last line of the poem. (Below, top left.) The statue's downcast eyes: melancholy, pensive. The figures she looks down upon—obscured—either the "you" who might not understand or the devils themselves, walking in and out of the speaker's life. 

I went conceptual (above, left): of the devils, "[t]he fourth was that I was made of guts and blood with a thin layer
 / of skin lightly thrown over the whole thing." The idea of taking away the nonessential parts of design. I envisioned a vellum cover—a thin layer of skin—separating the reader from the guts of the poem, the poem from the reader, the speaker from the world. Title text recesssed, inlayed. Then I thought of practical matters—printing budget, how an all-white cover can compete on the bookstore shelf. 

I reacted with color (above, right). And layering. A what's hidden versus what's exposed. The jagged attempt to pinpoint the devils, to find order in chaos. The devils in the everyday. The shout-out to the biblical epigraph. This was a front-runner favorite, but ultimately I returned to...

V. Share your final design. 

...the cheesecloth imagery. The mood. This cover—this visual incarnation of the poem—evokes the speaker's desire for a filter between her and the world, then drives it forward: how such a filter can obscure the self and the self's outlook. The figure, though eyeless, stares out. A seeking. Something intangible. The seven devils float in the ether as orbs, as dots wanting to be connected, as spots in the vision. The beneath-the-surface-self. "The underneath—that was the first devil. / It was always with me.
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