"Taking the ears at their peak": McHenry and Wiese's debut books
Eric McHenry, Potscrubber Lullabies (Waywiser, 2006)
Anne Pierson Wiese, Floating City (Louisiana State University Press, 2007)
The first section of Eric McHenry's debut collection is entitled "Rebuilding Year," a term familiar enough to sports fans everywhere as a sign to lower one's expectations and be prepared for an underwhelming season, though there is always the shimmering hope of a Cinderella story. It's almost as though McHenry was banking on that response, kind of like Woody Harrelson stumbling his way through a few half-court plays so he could, mocking disbelief at his newfound skill, sucker-punch his opposition with his well-honed Hoosier-style shake-and-bake. That this collection won the Kate Tufts Discovery Award is no fluke, and McHenry will surprise, pleasantly and sharply, both sophisticates from Boston, where he studied with Robert Pinsky and Rosanna Warren, and down-homers from Topeka, where he is originally from. And vice versa.
"Rebuilding Year" is also the title of the first poem in the book, and McHenry begins with all the right moves, chronicling the humbling return home after college, the aimlessness of make-do employment, his apartment's view of financial stabilityin the form of that ubiquitous Midwestern bank, First Nationalobscured by some unnamed obstacle and subsequently, out of sight, demolished:
I heard it
imploding, though, like Kansas Avenue
clearing its throat, and saw the gaudy brown
dust-edifice that went up when it came down.
He slyly pushes us up against 9/11 here, the dailiness or at best curios of controlled explosions of older buildings in sizable Middle-American towns (where, if there's footage taken, it ends up in science classrooms or in music videos) standing in direct contrast to the endlessly cycled fall of the WTC on CNN. Whatever resonance is there evaporates as soon as the speaker notes his attendance of Friday night games, slinking in, having the gall to pull aside players whose name he recognizes and "instruct them"or does he? More likely he yelled out encouragement from high in the bleachers, or even more likely did so unheard, the novice coach, the graduate's advice sent telepathically.
One can't avoid hearing in this poem, despite its apparent humility, a desire to "rebuild" poetry. Indeed, for many people, especially here in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins (although I first met him ten years ago as his housemate at Choate Rosemary Hall), McHenry's first claim to fame was his excoriation of Dave Smith's poetry in The New York Times Review of Books, a true feat of youthful audacity: "Smith's poems have real occasions. But his style rarely rises to them." Accusations of self-involved associative thinking, at times garrulous, at others needlessly paratactic, followed this stinger. McHenry much prefers the taut smoothness of William Matthews and Stanley Plumly, and practices what he preaches.
McHenry is in search of authenticity and authority in a world of brash voices: what can you rebuild on? He begins, as must we all, with the dead, the first few poems either set in graveyards or sending us to them. Gone, however, are the somber pomposities of Gray, the wrought Dixie nostalgia of Tate, and the Melvillean spindrift of Lowell. If at the gravestone of a politician, knee-slappingly called "The Incumbent," McHenry sees the encroachment of a tree's root about to tip over the marble obelisk, it's as yet a third toppling of the politician's authority (losing his last election, dying, and...). He also sees the invasion of the once-sacred and somber space by the garish, the interstitching of the appropriate with the inappropriate, even as he wonders what each might actually be. "God's Little Power Ranger" reads one epitaph, wrenchingly apt yet unconventional. McHenry seems at times the genuine realist, merely chronicling what's there, as though the empirical will yield some certainties.
McHenry's turn inward in the second section of the book tellingly entitled, "My Solipsism Is Superior to Yours," is far from simple. Hundreds of poets could be labeled self-deprecatory, but few are willing to take the risk of exposing their goofiness. McHenry wants strange things, a t-shirt with the slogan of his own devising, an epitaph that makes you want to groan, and life at the vanguard, listening to music so loud you hear the lead singer of Big Star say "fuck you" to someone in the studio before the next song. Memory, nostalgia, and autobiography are suspect here, as one didactic sonnet explains:
How to Write Autobiography
Avoid fried meats which angry up the blood
says Satchel Paige in his memoir, with all
the daffy precision of the troubleball
that left left-handers corkscrewed in the mud.
Presume Kingfish's innocence. Who's bringing
the allegation but the alligator?
And who's that writing? John the Revelator.
When writing, say or sing. Improvisation
was your whole life. Authentic is a game
that favors those who throw like trouble, name
like Adam and pronounce like Revelation.
Or fake it. Look at these italics, leaning
hard with the weight of someone else's meaning.
Those last six lines are McHenry as the finisher, dizzyingly shifting the frame time and time again before the final line whips through the strike zone. Even those with the least bit of authority, those who can name and pronounce, get carried away, as does the beauty pageant announcer who, spurred on by the press response to his mispronouncing "Miss Reading," ignores his "malaprompter" and smashes his glasses, concluding "What I said / I saw, and what I saw was what I was." Here, as with almost all poems in the book, "Syntax is everything," his words near the end of the Smith review, and to draw out lines or phrases truly cheapens his poems. One such example, a gem for us at Unsplendid: "I believe in the many primacies of taste" resonates well enough on its own, a new chestnut wrenched from the old "There's no accounting for taste," but to remove it from McHenry's twisting anti-homage to The Beatles feels so false a move, the concluding note of satisfying subjectivity ruthlessly undermined:
I believe in the many primacies of taste,
and in doing nothing to dislodge its nest
from a dependable cleft in the soul's one tree.
That's really why I don't love them: because
they make me feel like it's only me,
which is so unlike what so much music does.
Here and in all three sections of the book (the third, "The Outstruments Are In," as full of "daffy precision" as the first two), McHenry's music is crisp and hard for the most part, short vowels and sharp consonants, as unpretentious a sound as Pinsky's meticulous enunciations (though more colloquial) and as caustically suave as the improvisations of Charlie Parker and Coleman Hawkins, among others whose lives and music well up in this collection. McHenry's music knows its angularity well, like Browning's and Larkin's, worried that its volume may outlast its other features, as he concludes in persona in "'Larkin at Sixty'": "and now it's clear to me / 'They fuck you up' will be my Innisfree."
I turn now to Anne Pierson Wiese's Walt Whitman Award winning debut, Floating City, issued by LSU, Dave Smith's old haunting grounds, though this book is not a part of the Southern Messenger Series of which he remains the editor. It's not to say that he wouldn't have selected this Brooklynite's book, geography excepted, as the language and movement of these poems recall Claudia Emerson's measured sonnets in Late Wife. Everything here, in fact, is sonnet-shaped. If a given poem is not a sonnet in two rima bacciata quatrains and a sestet, it's blank verse in line counts of multiples of 14, although not all stanzas are of a length to remind you of that. There is, in this, an air of subtle fastidiousness that shapes much else in this collection.
A few poems in, it's easy to discern that Wordsworth is the governing ghost (confirmed in a later sonnet, "Composed upon Brooklyn Bridge, July 6, 2003"), primarily in that Wiese always endeavors to "look steadily upon [her] subject." There is an even-keeled placidity held fast to urbane wonder, her days, days not of the past nor the future but the here-and-now, "bound each to each in natural piety." She delights as much in Chinese restaurant employees washing down tables with tea between lunch and dinner, the cook in back emerging from a nap to "dizzy Fate / who keeps putting together people like hope," as she does in New York's green spaces, being more than a mere denizen but an aficionado of the parks. She's profoundly aware of Nature as an impenetrable, indestructible element, capable of overwhelming the imagination, much in the way that Wordsworth was: in "Mica Schist" she calls us to St. Nicolas Park in Harlem, where perhaps the sole remnant of Manhattan's original landscape exists:
terraces of rock untouched since men
with surveyor's tools stood on them
to deliver the bad news, back in the last
century but one: Gentlemen, here is a substance
we cannot move.
Trees, of course, do what man can't or won't do. Quite often, hers is the language of the urban gardener, planting where planting somehow shouldn't be possible, her ficus plant her friends say is taking over her apartment; she keeps her rejoinder to herself, "But little / do they know I am dreaming of the day / I will walk into the forest." She takes failures equally in stride, indeed "party to night's worst dreams and evolution of disappointment." For example, weeding out the excess basil sprouts so that the four survivors might yield their leaves, or mutely amazed at someone stealing plants from her bed, though she concludes, "It's hard to grudge a flower." Wiese has no use for Louise Glück's quasi-mystical blending of the voice of God with a gardener, seeing in human behavior patterns of partial measures: "something I only half meant to do" and "we are haunted by unplantlike doubts."
Whereas Wordsworth, out in his element alone, impulsively asks his leech-gatherer twice what he does for a living, the second time as sort of solipsistic confirmation, Wiese shows restraint in her wonder, and a socialized politesse, as when a Moroccan deli employee contrasts the New York snow to the unchanging daily weather of his homeland:
He touches the stainless-steel counter
with one fingertip. There, when you come outside
in the early morning, you touch the cars
and they are wet. If you buy a new car
or a new bicycle, in one year it is all
rust. I would like to ask him more
about Morocco, but mindful
of the people behind me, I do not.
Her encounters with the city's inhabitants thrive on particularity: "The Great Roberto" shirtlessly dispensing the true secret of risotto, an old man mimicking his parakeets' form of isometric "exercise" by clinging to a fence, the shameful closing of a classic bar"mystery" and "revolution" vanished like the pressed-tin ceiling behind sheetrock. Wiese sees New York as an ecosystem unto itself,
a city floating
like a lonely water lily
lapped by elements, rich in isolation
from our race, no tongue too foreign to bloom,
no lordly hand to tear us from our stem.
William Empson said that the "trick of mind" of the pastoral mode is the assumption of a "beautiful relation between rich and poor," the sophisticated speaker venturing out into the bucolic landscape, role-playing as shepherd or hermit. This appears most obviously in "Hermit Coming Out of the Forest," where from the context of the collection as a whole we discern Wiese's speaker to be but a venturer into the urban space, reluctantly returning to the "first shattering" of human voices, promising herself as always "never again" to leave the forest. Wiese is more successful in the liminal spaces, though, as "Rabid" is perhaps the most remarkable urban pastoral I've read in some time, her feats of mimesis viscerally affecting. The city dweller out for a walk encounters a rabid squirrel dangling with one paw on a fence, convulsing "like an animal electrified / in a cartoon" and "advancing across the pavement / in my direction with the fitful motion / and chatter of an insect." The threat that she shies away from, pulling her coat closer, is suddenly ended by passing cab, and Wiese, mesmerized in her startled pity and guilt-bound relief stays for a long time
watching the small body, which never
moved until another car passed over it
and set its tailstill intactfluttering in the faint
blue exhaust. The falling white light settled
level with the parking metersthen died.
Normally I'd wave a red flag about such an ending, the fading light, the too-easy convergence of dusk and death, but the strength of the preceding images and language successfully dissolve into this silent witness. There are only occasional missteps elsewhere, however, when she aggrandizes what she sees into something whimsy can only yield, as in wintertime when out of the sidewalk ice a trampled glove emerges "like the farewell wave of a dying civilization." Or unlike Anne Winters does in "The Displaced of Capital," lunging extensively into what one literary critic has called "the sweatshop sublime," that disorientation when confronted with the economic inequalities one is complicit in creating and maintainingWiese wants the last line of her meditation on the bumper crop of cherries picked by faceless laborers somewhere south to send us reeling, the fruit forbidden, "too precious to taste."
In the last section of her book, "Wind Farm," Wiese does physically venture out of the cityscape to venture "home" to South Dakota, where her grandmother leaves her out of her Christmas letters because the prerequisites for inclusion are giving birth or being "newly dead." As the heir of tea towels and other items beautifully hand-stitched by aunts, Wiese has no recourse but to use them, knowing "My only child is the ragged edge of time." If this sets her apart from the rest of her family, she adeptly comes to terms with the seemingly instinctual know-how of farmers, who "take the ears at their peak moisture / contentso delicate that even one more dew / will change it." She plumbs her grandmother's passing, noticed only having been absent at the seniors' bingo gathering, and parses the lingo of the plains:
That hits the spot conjures meat and potato meals
with my relativeshale seniors plowing back
from the table, replete with protein
and starchold-fashioned but accurate.
You might stretch the phrase to mean a cup
of black coffee on a cold day, or scenery
loved and left behind but grafted
to the tongue like taste; a correctly placed caress
or fall of rain. But if pressed, do you say
the spot exists? Or call it metaphorthe space
where need and happiness combine
somewhere between the belly and the mind,
describe it indirectly, use a corny phrase, to save
a seed of feelingthe small green spear of grace.
McHenry and Wiese are two promising voices asserting the viability of received forms at this late date. I elatedly greet them, these quite-different books having hit the spot, and I look to see what happens after this rebuilding year.
Santa Fe, NM
May 10, 2007