Soft Where, by Marcus McCann
Reviewed by Alex Boyd
Let’s be honest. The trouble with reviewing books of poetry is that I can take a few lines like “Heat like a sacred / plaza rocks us,” (the first few lines of a Marcus McCann poem) and either argue it’s an awkward image with no emotional resonance (a plaza is not sacred) or brilliantly postmodern, jarring us into an awareness of misleading modern perspectives.
Marcus McCann, in publishing his first full-length book of poems, has written a book that’s vibrant in its playful approach language, but most of the poems here appear to take an avant-garde approach. A reference to Stephen Cain (I do wish poets wouldn’t do that, it can’t help but make the poetry world feel remarkably small) in “Force quit,” would seem to suggest this as well. And while I enjoy the musicality of “We caught the gauche / gettogether on film’s digital / sister,” to be found in the poem “Red eye,” or “Dance up those bladders, dinosaur daughter,” to be found in “Kinder riffs,” the reader should be advised that there is some impenetrable stuff here, in terms of narrative structure. For me at least, “Heat like a sacred / plaza rocks us,” is too disparate a combination of images and proposed sensation. I get the potential links between words like heat and rocks, but they’re too plain to bloom in the mind in a way that’s tangible and allows the words to connect, even in the loose way poetry is allowed to form connections. Lines like “Is this what you remember?, send,” repeated throughout “Memory Parity Error” have a modern flavour and freshness not often found in poetry today, but other lines in the same poem, such as “A call to intrigue’s / best friend,” sit lamely around without enough connecting tissue between them for any measurable effect.
But with just a little more connectivity between lines, McCann proves his talent. In a poem like “Hanlan Point,” lines like “We were pets, optimistic / like beech trees, teeth, like the soft part of a promise.” And in “Cavity” he precisely and hilariously captures our collective anxiety over our looks with a couple of lines that exclaim “You’ll never get a job in retail, sad face, sad face.” Curiously, there’s also one poem that work extremely well as a lyric poem, and that’s “Shed.”
We stuck the beefy crock pot box
and other hollow parcels, (what
what we got came in) dragging
shredded paper on packing tape,
on top of the gardening bobs where
mom had unsheathed the plastic
tree from. We couldn’t go there since we
went and got smacked. But now
sent in mid-knee boots, we unslatted
the particleboard. I climbed up
to tuck the nearly trash into storage.
Gas-smell pooled; there I was crawling
on a spectacular present — the sitdown
mower we were warned about
wanting to see. A metal playfort,
I was standing on a furnace. I knew
how it coughed, knew between its
gumrubbers was a metal lump
like nads and under, two foot knives.
Jeff in the door, his visible breath
kudos, waited to see how like the one
armed mall ride it would be, where
an undersized racecar shuffles
left to right for a quarter.
Suddenly, in a book that has many original but frustrating half-statements, and images that can’t quite seem connect up and gather momentum, here’s a tangible, breathing poem that isn’t saccharine — McCann simply links his original voice and considerable talent up with greater coherence. It isn’t that poems need to be overly emotional, nostalgic, or driven by narrative, but poets can at least exist indirectly in their poems, and without mincing phrases into oblivion. McCann may consider himself a language poet, or simply an individual who isn’t afraid to experiment stylistically. Regardless, he provides many lines like “Iron proper, see him win / mad semen, a man sweating / a lake,” for those who enjoy it. Personally, I hope we’ll see a little more of McCann the next time we see more of McCann.