Sunday, April 25, 2010

When Poetry Rings True, True, True: HOME BY NOW by Meg Kearney

I spent a couple of years working on the board for The Frost Place (Franconia, NH) with poet Meg Kearney. She didn't drop lines of verse in public, and rarely brought up her enormous experience in the business side of writing (Meg is director of the Solstice Low-Residency Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program at Pine Manor College in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, as well as director of Pine Manor’s Solstice Summer Writers Conference; she was also associate director of the National Book Foundation (sponsor of the National Book Awards) in New York City). And her presence at poetry events at The Frost Place was often muted, focused more on her three-legged dog and regular companion Trooper, with warm conversation with the people who were drawn to the dog.

Her collection HOME BY NOW reached me "late" (months after publication) so I didn't hurry to make time for it. Unlike mysteries, poetry reviewing calls for at least three read-throughs: one to meet the slap of the words and their suprises with a fresh face, one to burrow into layers, one to consider how the collection is formed and shaped. Finally, I made time for Meg's book -- and almost instantly knew it would anchor my thinking about women's revelations, the climbs so many of us make out of dark places, and how to braid our lives into our words. I'll be giving copies of this book to others, and mentioning it to strangers. Yes, it's that good.

Take the opening poem of the collection, "Carnal," which begins:
I suppose squirrels have their hungers, too,
like the one I saw today with the ass end of a mouse
jutting from its mouth. I was in the park;
Kearney goes on to describe being fascinated by her dog's attentiveness to the sight, so that the two of them, dog and woman, became gawkers together. Then, with swift strokes of pen (or sword), she pulls an "ex" into the comparisons and ends,
... pointed like a stubby finger,
accused me of everything I'd thought
I'd wanted, and what I'd killed to get it.
Deftly weaving voice and persona, Kearney allows no easy confesssions: These are poems, not necessarily autobiography. They root in New York City, and a bedroom window view of the smoldering Twin Towers, with a decision to leave the city and go north. But they also root in the embers of girlhood, in comparing breast, tasting liquor, being children on bicycles and in playgrounds while also exploring sexuality that's enflaming. I like the poem "Virgin," which captures this multiplicity of naive wondering and hormone-fed longing and eagerness.

Amazing to me is the long-lined poem "First Blow Job":

Suddenly I knew what it was to be my uncle's Labrador retriever,
young pup paddling furiously back across the pond with the prized
duck in her mouth, doing the best she could to keep her nose in the air

so she could breathe. She was learning not to bite, to hold the duck
just firmly enough, to command its slick length without leaving marks.

These lines capture sensations I'd never dreamed of trying to put into words, and in a just world, this poem would turn up on every AP English exam -- to confirm for teens that we really do know what they're either going through or contemplating. But I'd also love to see the poem in collections for women looking back on their lives with curiosity and pleasure. And there may be men also who seize this marvel of senses, and say "Yes, that's what it is/was!"

At nearly the center of the collection is a powerful narrative piece, nearly four pages long, in snugly metered quatrains, layered with points of view and memory and sharply packaged moments. It's from the (woman) bartender's point of view, titled, "So This Grasshopper Walks Into a Bar." I'll let the poem set the scene, then provide some of the gems that follow:
The trick is to pay close attention to that vodka
you're pouring, and lie: Nope, haven't heard
that one. ...

It's only nine o'clock, and already the smoke eater's
snapping like a wet towel. ...

... Each time
you come here you're struck by how the cigarette reek

in your hair mixes with the musk in your turtleneck
and it doesn't smell bad. ...

Lugging out that case you know the local boys think
you're tough -- yeah, you can fake it as well as Linda

can fake she's sober -- that is, up to a point. ...

You'll cash out, slam a shot, pour the tip jar into your
purse, elbow the light switch, turn the key in the door
and set the alarm.
Those quick turns of vivid language, "snapping like a wet towel," "elbow the light switch": As much as her courage to name the realities that we grow through, I savor those phrases in Kearney's work. Like a hybrid of Emily Dickinson with Bruce Springstein, she's telling the truth, and I'm listening. And tapping one foot, getting ready to get up and dance.

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