As National Poetry Month draws to a close, we’re still buzzing from our virtual event with former Parnassian Kendra DeColo (which you can watch here), for her new collection I Am not Trying to Hide My Hungers From the World. That is of course just one of many titles that we are excited to keep on our shelves. A few highlights: Amanda Gorman’s The Hill We Climb, Kwame Alexander’s Light for the World to See, the Kevin Young-edited African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle and Song, Don Mee Choi’s DMZ Colony, Ross Gay’s Be Holding, Francine J. Harris’ Here Is the Sweet Hand and Leanne Couch’s Every Lash, to name but a few.
For this post, bookseller Ben Groner wanted to spend a little more time with a few books than our must-fit-on-a-shelf-talker Staff Picks will allow, so he’s fleshed out his recommendations with more detail. We should mention here that Ben is himself a published poet — check out “Three Minutes in Nijmegen,” “Pillars of Light, Hills of White” and two poems in Delta Poetry Review.
Without further ado, here’s Ben on three recent collections:
By Wayne Miller
In his latest collection, We the Jury, Miller looks out at his world as a husband, a father, a citizen, and asks with honesty and rapture: “What is this America, what is this life?” A keen observer, Miller is not disheartened by past atrocities and current struggles, but is compelled to hold them in front of him and be candid about what he sees. His refusal to shy away from hard truths is evident throughout, as in a passage describing how the ringing of cell phones in the pockets of dead night clubbers was “the best image we had / of what made us a nation,” and how the current director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum must “visit the ovens / must inspect the barbed wire / for rust and replace it.” On the other hand, he is equally aware of the wonder that is at all of our fingertips, in poems such as “Lens” where he glimpses futures that “lay just beyond the door / open and luminous,” and in “Notes: History” where he notices the way “tap water / will draw up through the stem / and compel the petals / to continue opening.”
There’s an engaging wry humor and frankness to these lyrical narratives, especially when he’s musing about class and wealth disparity in “From the Afterlife of the Rich” and “Song From the Back of the House.” In the former, a deceased wealthy person gazes out and sees that “down in the orchestra pit / the musicians were clothed in our / sustaining contributions,” and in the latter, a chef questions if the guests are “so middle class, / what are those of us / working back here? / Oh.”
One of the most impressive aspects of this collection, to me anyway, was that no matter the subject, the poems never hover around a single tone or paint with a single shade, not even when they’re interrogating difficult history and truths. Miller is insistent on tenaciously dangling threads of hope along the taut line breaks. The world he finds himself a part of is about more than simply surviving; it involves being large-heartedly present and open to love. When he sees a bird hopping around inside an airport in the poem “The Future,” he asks, “If only / she could be coaxed / down the jetway / and onto the plane / to take to the sky / inside our human / endeavor, wouldn’t that / be a kind of release?” Throughout the book, Miller tackles plenty of tough topics — miscarriage, heroin addiction, housing crisis, middle age, war — but all with a measure of gentleness and abundance. As he observes wisely, “Bomb craters” with time become “ponds / exploding with lilies—.”
Taking its apt title from the Irish concept of a vigil “for the living, the leaving” — those setting off for better fortunes in America — McCadden weaves delicate familial webs, unearths ancestral stories, searches for home, and ruminates on her relationship with her brother.
This brother is being poisoned and erased by drugs, a topic she returns to in many of these poems. In “Portrait of the Family as a Definition,” she explores this loss through the etymology and connotations of the word “soon,” writing: “When / the needle is inserted, soon the body tingles like sleep and the brother / nods off. How did it get so late so soon?” In “When My Brother Dies,” she comes right out and asks, “Which death are my parents crying about, now? […] Hypodermic needle / death is the one I know it always is, though. […] We cry like our eyes / are needles, the plunger pressed. We cry like sugar / water and dirty apartments. There he goes again.” These types of imagistic and emotional seeds she sows throughout the book swell in resonance toward the end in powerful poems like “reverse overdose,” and “Ashes.”
Of course, the subject matter McCadden sifts through goes beyond this particular grief. In “Street View,” she drags the yellow man icon of Google’s technology all over Ireland as she seeks to visualize the land her family belongs to, while “The Magpie: A Key” reads like precious folk wisdom as she ponders what 20 different behaviors of the bird could possibly mean. She’s equally dexterous with metaphors and similes, noting that “In the lumberyard of the heart, the materials / are strange,” and how “texts from an ex-husband” are “like a flying saucer / landing on earth, so close,” like pings from a brandished “blaster, phaser, rocket-grenade, / the phone lighting up at night with him, lasers blasting / the bedroom blue.”
In these poems, Station Island and Cruach na Míol blossom into view, ancient saints hold their heads in their arms, boats and islands and seas populate the pages, hearts go about their unseen workings as rivers thaw, a vintage planetarium illumines a darkened bedroom, a brother is loved and lost and looked for time after time. In “Shaking the Sheets,” she “let[s] the morning disappear as if disappearances / were kind, as if windmills were some kind / of measure.” Mornings and windmills may fail us, but these poems are generous, offering ways to weigh loss, to rediscover what it means to find a home and create a life.
Visiting Hours isn’t as new as the previous two collections (it was published last spring), but seeing as I missed it in the stunned numbness of the early-pandemic months and the paperback released recently, I hope you’ll allow me to draw attention to it below.
These poems revolve around Mary Interlandi, McFadyen-Ketchum’s dear childhood friend who leapt from the 7th floor of a parking garage to her death in 2003 at the age of 19. Elegiac and imaginative, he writes to mourn and search for her, to wrestle with blame and understanding. The poems whirl from Blacksburg, Virginia to Mammoth Cave, Kentucky but mostly to the Nashville of their shared youth: a land of honky-tonks and quarries and a “Land of the twang and tremolo / Of steel guitars, Land of churches rising / from every corner.” He employs childhood memories, dream sequences, multi-page meditations on grief and recollection, those longer poems often being among the most emotionally-charged.
In one section of the nine-page title poem, “Visiting Hours,” he recalls visiting her in the mental ward and how he “watched a rhombus of daylight scroll / Across Mary’s star-turned face, her eyes / Fluttering, the hardback she’d been reading / Perched like a little roof on the house / Of her chest.” In another, he eschews punctuation, using the word “blame” forty-three times as if in a frantic rush to figure out that unanswerable question why: “blame blame blame the parking garage’s easy access blame the voices no one heard but she.” In the dream world of “Marysarias,” another long, multi-section poem, he thinks of their younger selves when they “were two kids who should’ve been in love,” but then poses questions like “Do I tell you how fiercely I loved my wife?” or “Do I tell you how they [the two policemen] stood there in the door, their blue hats / held before them like the orbs of all life and the fate of mankind grasped / in the hands of God’s first clergy?”
By the same token, Mary is no silent ghost on the page. Though the poems return repeatedly to her death and gaping gone-ness, at times she is fiercely alive on the page when her voice rises, italicized and immediate, from his. In the final poem in a series of consecutive ones told from her perspective, “I Too Grow Tired of Winter,” she describes her spirit self passing through the keyhole of her childhood home:
In the dark I riffle curtains
Only to watch them smooth themselves back to order.
In shadow I remove all the novels and neatly-accordioned maps
From their spots on the shelves
And place them on their faces on the floor like tarot
Only to watch them open their spines, test
Their paper wings, and flutter back to their designations
Night after night,
I practice fourth notes and fifths on the baby grand.
Always it ends the same:
My mother startling awake from sleep,
My father certain “it’s her” practicing scales a floor below
Like I did in life,
And just as they turn the corner in their nightclothes,
All over again.
I kept being impressed by how cohesive these poems are in concept and imagery. In “Smith Lake,” he mentions swimming together beneath moonlight as kids—“her hair / held suspended by the water’s hundred hands” — then in “Mare Orientale” explores the perspective of an impact crater on the far side of the moon, paying admirable attention to assonance and consonance in passages like “Moon: An oculus, sabled / And socketless. Mene: Our keeper, cragged / And craven.” He calls desperately to Mary on one page, and she answers from a dream on another.
This collection is heartrending, though not one-dimensionally depressing. There’s life on these pages, both Mary’s and his, language bringing her brightly into focus, “ribbons of reeds, unraveling from her ankles, Mary surfacing / So slowly it was as if she climbed not water but sky.” These are the poems of a friend who has lived so many years saturated in thoughts and emotions that they’ve steeped into a complex, potent tea of ache and wonder and longing. In all of them, he “offers [his] heart / To the muscular dark.” So, reader, drink deeply. Traverse these pages. Perhaps you’ll find yourself alongside the poet as he searches. Perhaps you can find her too.