Saturday, February 14, 2009

Word Play on the Pages: Kevin McFadden, HARDSCRABBLE

Kevin McFadden's 2008 collection, HARDSCRABBLE, is an inaugural selection of the VQR Poetry Series from the University of Georgia Press. It's a slow, delicious read, complex and funny and provocative. Nearly every one of the hundred pages of poems is a tangle of word play, anagrams, puns, and etymology. Many of them root in the irony of small-town names in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere that echo the names of great historic European cities -- Rome and Athens, among others! Another important strand is the set of one-letter-error Bible versions that McFadden savors: the Murderers Bible, for instance, "an 1801 edition in which Jude 16 reads "these are murderers" instead of murmurers." In "Drift," inspired by that misprint, McFadden ties together horses drowning, the nature of death, the double meaning of "mare" in this context (horse; night dream), and the thrill of language on the tongue.

I have two nominations for "most likely to be reprinted" here. The first is "Meditate Sea to Sea," which opens, "Let America be America again. / Ice age ambiance. Later a Mira- / cle air: a meat mania, ice-barge, / ice-amble. A tie. Agrarian came / later, Inca came, a bare image I / bear. An Eric came, agile at aim / (let America be a maniac, I rage)." From one line borrowed from Langston Hughes, McFadden spins a political and tongue-twisting tour of a nation's history.

My second (later in the book -- but stuck in my thoughts, at the level where I want to corner strangers and say "read this!") -- is the twenty-stanza "Famed Cities," which opens with a segment titled "Ohio Welcomes You!" and roams through Rootstown, Richfield, Oxford, Rome, Solon, and more. Each unfolds another twist, so that in the eighth one, for instance, "Brothers, Dayton," we reach "An aviator's code of collusion; words that smirk, / beg the stewardesses to sit, prepare for a take-off. / We grew up in a kind of cockpit." If you suspect there's something seductive in there, you're right.

The complexities in here are mind-boggling. "Another Untied Shoe" not only plays with words that differ in only one letter (wind/mind; flash/flesh) and with "The ungulfed gap between / the poem and the idea" but also grapples with truth, wisdom, and the Greek myths, until:
What we hold
on the tongue a moment we
do not do now
(it leaves us
and is ours)

I spent an entire evening reading, very slowly, the 29 pages of "Tarmac." It's built of prose poetry chunks, all dipping into words and their histories, ideas and their girths/births, and America as a culture, a history, and an inventor's paradise. Here's a double chunk:
Beaver River. Adam was given the job of naming the beasts. Nouns are our business. Rats are chosen for clinical experiments because they don't vomit. Tar for roads because everything sticks to it. Rat. Tar. Art.
JORDAN RUN. In 1775, the Indians were assured that the Ohio would remain a boundary. "In perpetuity," as the phrase went -- and we know how that phrase went. God gave the Hebrews land where they never toiled, towns they never built, vineyards they never planted. Most nations I know have expulsion myths to temper their conquests. Mine's about a mean, old king who lived in a big castle and demanded horrible taxes from a persecuted people. Mine's about humble origins. Perhaps you've heard it. Peasant stock.

When the poem reaches it final crescendo, it offers:
Saturn. Decay and dissolution, especially before a period of rebirth. A lapse is not the Fall. Lapse makes leaps. A lapse is a sepal. Be fruitful, multiply. Who is how.

I have other favorites already, too, like "Media" (which tangles with meat eating), and "Ears." I confess, though, what this book makes me long for is someone willing to sit still and listen, while I read the poems aloud, uhh-loud, and interrupt myself with giggles and moments of rolling on the floor -- and pauses to think about Creation and death.

Yep, it's that kind of book. Right on, err, write on, Kevin McFadden.

No comments: