Tuesday, February 03, 2009


Okay, I admit it: I'm a sucker for any collection of poems that mentions my favorite band, as in Kevin McFadden's poem "Die Satan!", from his collection Hardscrabble:

(The Stones alone show him sympathy,
the Grateful Dead call him friend.)

But McFadden's collection is worth reading even for those who aren't Deadheads. The only reason to avoid it would be if you hate puns and anagrams, because the book is full of them, and is also full of reflections on punning and anagramming.

Here's a taste from "Famed Cities," one of the three longer pieces in the book:

My friends I teased about the leave in Cleveland;
they teased back Brunswick's run. Home not,
as the saying goes, a place to hang your hat—
home where the hat, by name, by chance, hangs you.

McFadden's attention to the letters that make up his words might seem to get out of hand at times, but he relates his interest in letters to his own biography, as in this passage from the long prose section, "It's Tarmac," that is the second of the longer pieces here, in which he talks about his mother's name: "Her maiden name (Bretmersky) was a clerical error on a baptismal certificate (Pretmersky)."

His attention to letters and anagrams even colors his brief comments on poetics, in this later passage from "It's Tarmac":

Contemporary American poetry is fond of dichotomies. I'm feeling a little punchy, so I'll hazard my own one-two: those interested in who and those interested in how. Cults of who and schools of how.

The third of the long pieces here is called "Time"; section XV ("Another, Cleveland": yes, McFadden is from the Cleveland area) begins with a line that recalls a theme I appreciated in Jonathan Lethem's Fortress of Solitude ("The key to mostly anything is pretending your first time isn't"), and then it ends with a bit of philosophy and a bit of deflation:

What are we, but what we mistake ourselves for?
The brashest fact of my childhood—was I five?—
learning there were other Kevins. Might have said seven
for the rhyme, but you'd probably think I was slow
("Second grade, the lad hadn't grasped that?") and
good thing, too, since you're counting, I wasn't named
Nate, the temptation would be too (don't say it)
powerful. Do you even believe a syllable of this?
This life is a living remembered over a shoulder:
breadcrumb trail remapped into meaning years after
from crowshit cairns which pigs mistake for truffles.
Three days in your life that no art will recapture:
the day you were born, the day death sank in deep,
and the day you divined you weren't so damn special.

Thus, even when he's playing with anagrams and puns (pursuing the "how" of poetry), McFadden never turns fully away from a biographical approach centered on epiphanies (or the lack thereof), the "cult of who."

One feature of the book that I have left out until now is its focus on the theme of America, from anagram poems built around lines about America from Langston Hughes and Allen Ginsberg to a poem about the Statue of Liberty that outlines his mother's peculiar use of idiomatic phrases like "brand spanking new" to a poem about being "At Rushmore" that also deflates its subject in the conclusion, though here the deflation is also an opening up of the monumental subject at hand:

... Near the base, rubble remains—
a talus of blasted stones, dropped names—
the part of the image we may come closest to.


JeFF Stumpo said...

Who could hate puns and anagrams? My favorite parts of Terrance Hayes's Hip Logic were the "a gram of &s" sections!

One of the things I particularly like about both that volume and the selections you're highlighting from Hardscrabble (which I now need to check out) is how much fun they're having with the language. They're making it do work, but the grin that shows through is genuine, pleased to be showing you language being language. As opposed to the ironic, Penn and Teller grin, laughing at the word.

That third McFadden poem in particular skips along and then, wham, you suddenly realize you jumped over a crack in the sidewalk that's far deeper than it ought to be.

Mixing my metaphors and not caring,

Andrew Shields said...

I certainly don't know why anyone could hate puns and anagrams! But McFadden does thematize the idea that his punning and anagramming may seem silly to some.

Yes, KM is definitely having a huge amount of fun, with a genuine, non-ironic grin.

And I agree about that third poem: how wonderful when Oulipian games suddenly produce so much feeling.

Like my emblem of such moments, from the movie "Smoke," when William Hurt looks at Harvey Keitel's photos of Keitel's shop and thinks they are all the same, then suddenly sees his dead wife in two of them.

JeFF Stumpo said...

Oh no, I haven't seen Smoke yet. Well, at least I'll be watching for that part...

Andrew Shields said...

If/when you watch "Smoke," be sure to check out "Blue in the Face," too, which the same people improvised with the money and time left over when "Smoke" was finished early, and under budget!

For some reason, I had long forgotten that Forest Whitaker has a small, brilliant role in "Smoke" that almost steals the film. What a great actor! His performance in "Ghost Dog" is one of my all-time favorites.

JeFF Stumpo said...

Will do :-)