James McKean: Exposing Chinks to the Inner Life, Oct 95


As one who reads poetry with about as much zeal as some people read religious texts or the stock market exchange, and writes poetry with a comparable amount of enthusiasm, I often ask myself, what for? What is poetry for? Surely the world abounds with more efficient means of telling stories, even getting to the heart of things, via cinema, TV, newspapers, and the legendary comforts of a long novel. And being one who is more than a little impatient with the merely sentimental, pretty, or artsy, what is it I’m looking for when I pick up a book of poems anyway? And so whenever I pick up a book of poems, in this case James McKean’s new book, Tree of Heaven (University of Iowa Press, 1995, $10.95 paperback), this heresy thinking comes along.

Now, I confess, even for fanatics like me, it may take a little doing to get one’s brain into what I call poetry mode, allowing those particular neurons to kick in so the mind can widen and deepen, enter its fractal space. It takes time, in other words, to give oneself over to good poetry, and to very good poetry it may take even more time. James McKean’s book is filled with very good poetry. These are among the best poems I’ve read in months. (I’m not alone in my thinking. Did I mention that this collection won the coveted Iowa Poetry Prize?) They are fine and good just because they give back as much as they ask for. But first they ask for us to be quiet, to take time in order to hear, really hear, what is being said. We are listening for the life within the life we think we live, beneath the coming and going, the seeing and talking. McKean takes us there with the least flick of wordplay and image, as in this passage from “The Place of Mosquitoes”:

Do you hear it? Something from long ago

I will never find—
a voice so faint and calling now
I find myself, when the engine starts,
slapping at my ears.

Just as it is poetry’s unique gift to get beneath the surface world to where we mostly live our not-so-ordinary lives, it is only a poet such as McKean, at ease with his considerable powers of observation and language, to swerve these poems so effortlessly from outer to inner life and back again. There is a fluid and agile strength in these poems that takes one’s breath away. Ostensibly these are poems about travel and family, work and play, relationship and loss, animals, children, one’s own children. In short, the shared world.

But we soon come into a finer realm of reflection where reside longing and despondency, the hard choices we make, the sense that life is giving back something other than what we had intended. And what it gives back may be “the intricate evidence of angels” found in frozen drifts on a pond, or harder things we come to know about ourselves, as in “A Hawk in the Yard”:

. . . there’s a hawk in our yard,
preceded by his shadow
so we all knew of his coming,
so we all pay his tax of attention . . . .

It continues in a kind of epiphany.

This is called revelation and giving
for which the hawk loves us all
one day and stoops, wings folded in
of what he will enter talons first,
of what will sustain him.

I love how the long, beautiful narratives of these poems are so light and lyrical. How the lines never bog in details we don’t care about, nor does the poet indulge himself in a merely confessional, tell-all tone. And I am intrigued by the gentle pacing of these poems which pulls me through the shared world of wrens and red barns, hawks, ice, and nets of blue flowers, all the while letting a deeper, denser world flicker its full spectrum of shadow and light. For in order to fully see the world, to know it,

. . . first we must walk to sharpen
the edge on our faces
breath after breath a preoccupation,
temporary bloomings
on dark branches.” (—“Concert”)

These poems seek that which might console. And in seeking that which might console, they must encounter their own stubbornness, the unyielding impasses we keep arriving at in our most important relationships. This and the sense that always we must attend to our lives, our dis-consolations, before we can move on.

On this ridiculous night, on a bridge
we cross halfway to stare

at water caught
in midsentence, bullied by the cold,
I close my eyes on

another reasonable excuse. (—“Ice”)

So what does console, the speaker of these poems seems to be asking. Are we only to be offered one illusion after another, as in “Whale Rock”? Here, the speaker is driving a “no-shouldered” road, “eager to witness something larger,/ more peaceful than myself,” imagining in a passing hitchhiker “the dark flukes, the jaw barnacled,/ and one eye cleansing my own.” The poem continues:

But when the woman who sold me gas
said this whale never moves,
I saw how illusions
are given to the eager.

So it might just come down to words. Words and the act of writing, tenuous as that may seem. “I saved words,” continues the speaker of “Whale Rock,” words “for the road back out,/ a gray rolling in.” And it is words again in the strange and exquisite poem “Whispering in Leo Kauf’s Ear.”
At a statue of a rich industrialist the speaker visits somewhere in Mexico, townspeople line up each morning to say heaven knows what into his “hollow” ear:

. . . Listen. Each word
repairs the ear. He know our story, waits
all day
for its predictable sad and open-ended ending,
and expects nothing. So, what are we to
say to an emptiness
where all talk is small and echoes?

But these poems are working towards a broader, more generous consolation. There are moments where plain beauty lies in wait, ready to heal and regenerate.

In my lap lay
the blue river and when I looked up
from driving the water fell
so far away it seemed like feathers sewn
to a green housecoat
in morning light . . . .
(—“Driving to Multnomah Falls”)

And moments again where only the writing can save us.

You think this is a day to begin,
that all you need is will, a passion for
a place found and named for everything
and everything in love with its name.
A day to end the life you’ve lived for
others. (—“Silver Thaw”)

In the end it is not words alone that have the power to console, but also our willingness to enter the process of trying to name ourselves, as in this poem about the speaker’s daughter making angels in the snow.

. . . I would show my daughter the
nothing left.

I would give her words to trace in snow,
a nothing wings might leave but she
already. Nonsense, she says, filling
the emptiness she rises up from with the
of her own name. (—“Snow Angel”)

And even when we fail, there is comfort still. The title poem of this book, for instance, “Tree of Heaven,” which begins, “Not heaven enough” and concludes:

One way or another

this tree must fall,
a name’s failure,

a weed praised for its reaching,
its hallelujah of

new shoots
heaving the sidewalk up.

These poems work their way somberly, yet lightfootedly across the fragile ice of desolation, “too thin where I cross/ only in my thinking” (“Ice”).They are important the way all good poetry is important. Not because it fills our lives with more stories, but because it exposes the chinks in our own armament of stories, where the inner life, the real life, bleeds through. In “Tree of Heaven” each moment of insight seems just the right moment, as if it had arrived by grace. How easy it is with poets like James McKean to find our daily consolations. We have only to read, to listen, for then

We do nothing but displace our weight
and leave the shore behind.

Sow Bear


We are thankful
for our side of the river
and the blue-green cold and the stones
ice-dropped where we stand
and watch the sow bear
in her midsummer fat, rummage
for roots or sockeye,
her great brown haunches toward us.
When she looks back,
we are thankful once more
that the river sweeps away the meaning
for “rival.” We are nothing—
not food nor fear nor stink
of much interest and
it’s her choice, thank you, how
little to make of us,
numb-footed and crazy
from too much light these long days.
Oh, blessèd indifference!
Behind a stump, a bough of spruce,
we’re once-overed and dis-
missed, not worth a woof or a charge
for which we are thankful again, empty-handed,
and lousy, we admit,
at planning for winter, dreamers
on two feet forever,
who see a bear even after she’s gone
and the wind follows her
flower by flower through the white
cow parsley.