(Brooklyn, NY: Indolent Books, 2018)
In a contemporary poetry landscape which focuses on style and a partisanship that commands the status quo, what about the poets who find joy in some tradition? J.G. McClure is such a poet. McClure turns on romantic themes and produces just enough style to prop up substance. He plays in the narrative hooks, irony, and humor of James Tate and Tony Hoagland, but the question remains: does McClure bask or get lost in Tate’s tall and storied shadow?
The prologue, a proem called “The Odyssey II,” takes on the daunting task of trying to follow up on what is arguably the greatest epic poem in all of human history, and he chooses to do so with a lyric. What could go wrong? Not much actually. Its twofold role both grounds the collection with some historical perspective but also threads the “idea” of the lover spied through the distance of the past. The poet-speaker states:
And what is Penelope but The Idea
of Penelope, for whom he longs
beside the sea, watching the rise
and dip of distant masts? Oh gods,
may we find a way to her.
McClure wisely distinguishes the idea from the person. In doing so, he also sets the stage for his own Penelope, Ellie, to enter the mind’s stage, and she is threaded throughout the collection. By grounding his own love within the idea, he slyly reminds us how even those closest to lovers can become ideas when life gets in the way.
Along with this comparison between past and present, distant and near, falls a historically significant contrast: while Odysseus fights and closes the gap between himself and his love and is at once sneaky, shrewd, lucky, and just plain blessed by the gods, the modern “hero,” if that is even the right word, writes poems with wit, humor and silliness to while away life in the modern world. This is where Tate, a sort of unspoken Virgil-figure, invisibly leads him in the wake of his humor. But can the poet-speaker get close enough without being too close, to Tate or to Ellie?
As the collection gets going, it embraces the old myth with modern spin. Invoking the suffering lover, the poet-speaker persona splits in two, with the other part strongly rooted in a needy lover. I am not sure if poetry has done this well, but the hit 80’s film Say Anything does, with the main character Lloyd Dobbler’s close friend Corey Flood (excellently played by Lilli Taylor) singing and strumming “That’ll Never Be Me” — one of 65 songs for her lurking lover Joe, who haunted and taunted poor Corey. Likewise, we have 71 pages of poems that routinely circle back to McClure’s Ellie. Unlike Joe, who tormented poor Corey, Ellie is gone, gone, mysteriously gone. Corey’s tone — part pathos, part awkward bathos — surfaces in the collection. Yet McClure balances it with another personae, a sort of modern Hamlet that toys with the ways of the modern world in much the same way Hamlet toys with philosophical ponderings of a post-Luther world.
The first four poems of the collection strike this balance evenly. The opening poems “Multiverse Theory” and “Café at Night” yearn for the as yet unnamed Ellie and favor the Corey persona as they long for what could-have-been in playful ways that engage in a Tate-like mode, while mixing in an earthy humor that would have kept Shakespeare’s ruffian audiences engaged.
There are worlds as real as this one for every way we never meet:
worlds where you get hit by a bus instead, or I do,
worlds where you are the one
driving the bus and the squishy
whistling sounds I make
as I get sucked under the bus haunt you
so you never drive a bus again
The bendy-twisty sense of time in the poem engages with the witty and the hurt mind at once. What could have been? What should have been? It’s points like this where the intelligence of Hamlet gets one over on the Corey personae, even if it engages with some silly diction such as “squishy” to arrive where the poem does, conceptualizing a world in which “there must be a world in which I do” [imagine worlds that are better off without her].
The wiser, more philosophical persona takes over in the next two poems “The Cat” and “Romantic.” While both poems at least obliquely speak to the love gone wrong, these poems resonate more in wit and wisdom. “The Cat” ponders the snowballing effects of love grown too powerful, too strong in the form of an allegory. Yes, good ol’ allegory still has its place. Moreover, “Romantic,” including lines such as “Wordsworth watches, / a disappointed dad sipping gin” turns the whole notion of what is romantic through the pixelated-looking glass as it wraps up “Had we just been // born 200 years ago, together / we could vomit laudanum, gently // holding each other’s hair back.” So sweet the notion, this reader feels as if I have vomited up their whole relationship with a smile on my face.
As the collection winds its way between this double-helix of personae, it takes on the modern world cleverly. In “Chaos is Seattle in a Spaniel” he weaves an auto-correction into a glimmering image of the techno-age self, while “At Mason Park in December, I Think about the Past Year” and “Write a Dream, Lose a Reader” the poet-speaker employs metafictional techniques a la Tim O’Brien or Thomas Pynchon to great effect: the former bristles with wit as it puts the Chekhov’s loaded gun trope through the paces, while the latter spins a tale about Ellie as a pig, his “conceit.” “Forgive me, I too was the pig, and you, / the dark place I could not be found.”
If the point of poetry is to touch the heart, then this is strong poetry. If the point is to make us laugh and coo, then this is strong poetry. If the point is to eclipse your predecessors, then this is a fine attempt. It is a young person’s collection. It acts out the old youth versus wisdom continuum but very much leans towards youth. This is obviated in “He’d Be Happier, He Thinks, If He Could Hate the World Purely.” The final sentence reads, “There’s luminous, // which rhymes with ruin us— / there’s the nagging hope that this means something.” If the title alone does not clue us into a youthful conceit, then these lines do. Only youth spends so much time hoping.
In an age when poetry is read seemingly exclusively by other poets, then McClure speaks to a more adventurous time in the future when poetry will be read more widely. He strikes a chord that appeals to the reader in us, not merely the writer. This is a target more should aim for.
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PK Eriksson is a poet, critic, and English teacher from Chicago. PK loves this life, Earth, and the intimacies words sing. PK’s poems and reviews have appeared in 100 Words, The Santa Fe New Mexican, Quail Belle, among other publications. @pkeriksson10 for twitter.