March 20, 2011

Review by J. Scott BrownleeThe Manageable Cold by Timothy McBride

THE MANAGEABLE COLD
by Timothy McBride

TriQuarterly Books
Northwestern University Press
629 Noyes Street
Evanston, IL 60208-4210
ISBN 978-0-8101-2675-6
2010, 78 pp., $15.95
www.nupress.northwestern.edu

Deeply immersed in the internal music of McBride’s own life growing up poor on the back streets of Rochester, New York, The Manageable Cold is, as Dorianne Laux lauds in her dust-jacket review, “a first book of great maturity and promise”—one that draws upon a deep well of experience, loss, and redemption to make its many social, political, and philosophical points hit home. While the majority of contemporary poets line up on either side of the formal/free-verse divide in most of their published work, owing largely to the difficulty of simultaneously embracing and pushing against historical poetic forms, Timothy McBride and his down-on-your-luck-and-a-dollar-short-at-the-lunch-counter voice seem perfectly comfortable straddling this line in The Manageable Cold, treating it as a boundary to be crossed rather than as a stylistic barrier.

The Manageable Cold is, by far, one of the most skillfully crafted and thematically unified first books I’ve ever read. You may not have heard about McBride in an MFA workshop, at AWP’s exhaustive book fair, or at the poetry readings you’ve attended, largely because many of the poems in The Manageable Cold don’t appear in the prominent literary journals where you might expect to find them—those metaphorical boxing rings of verse where poetry’s semi-pros take their first steps toward prize fights. The good news is that you will soon have a new up-and-comer to root for in the rings of Poetry, AGNI, The New Yorker, Ploughshares, RATTLE, and other literary journals of distinction: the rough-and-tumble Timothy McBride.

Why? you might be inclined to ask. Because McBride’s poems, whether framed by form, free verse, or some combination of the two, have a tendency to do a lot of heavy, necessary metaphysical work with an incredible degree of verbal economy. The sonnet “Conn,” in which McBride elegizes his father alongside boxing legend Billy Conn, provides only one compelling example of the poet’s ability to compact and complicate language as a practiced sonneteer:

He tried and tried some nights to make me see
how Conn had staggered Louis that first fight:
“He nailed him, Timmy, just like he nailed me,
a right hand, under.” Then he’d have me do it.
Corner him. Beat him to the punch.
Lean in to learn what made his life go on:
five minutes’ worth of hell with Billy Conn,
who took the crown from Louis. Almost. Once.

The Manageable Cold is rooted, at least to some degree, in the imagistic, self-reflexive, Modernist tradition of poets like Philip Larkin, and I think successfully so. Engaging other prominent poets of the Modernist period such as W.B. Yeats in the tribute poem “A Travelogue of Self and Soul” and William Carlos Williams with the these-plums-are-so-delicious line breaks of “Slow Dissolve” allows McBride to link his own existential stake, his own obsession with language, to the stakes and obsessions of a larger historical poetic discourse. More importantly, his choice to emphasize and explore his own literary origins makes the contemporary jukes and jabs of his lyrically focused verse feel more bruising, quick, and nimble than they otherwise might.

I make the reference to prize fighting here (and elsewhere in this review) because McBride, himself an avid boxer, treats language with the same sort of deferential Zen that Jean-Claude Van Damme might if Bloodsport had been a movie about a poetry slam champion instead of a gifted martial artist. In poems like “Villainous,” for example, a piece that cross-references every other anthologized villanelle in the English language while still finding a way to make the form feel new, McBride displays a mastery of form akin to that of a prize fighter who has honed a mean upper-cut punch:

The thing that turned you on? I turned it off.
Figure-ground-figure-ground-figure.
A contranym’s the opposite of itself.
It always holds back something. That’s the truth.

In “Don’t Use My Blood,” McBride reveals a vulnerable male voice caught in the midst of its own elaborate lie, which serves as the highly believable conceit that guides the poem:

Don’t trust my smile
no matter how I gush
at you from the tilted chair
letting blood
run into your plastic bag.
My heart is sick. My pint is venomous.

Don’t trust my words.
I lied to every question on your form.
I have “taken / given money in exchange for sex”
with men and women,
not “even once,” but many times.
I’ve been “unprotected” in love,
in despair, in loneliness—
in New York and Miami,
in Java and in Niamey, Niger.
I lived through those connections.
That’s why I come to you.

For McBride, writing poetry is a deeply personal, emotionally athletic activity in which the competitor on the other side of the ring, bed, or doctor’s table is ultimately oneself. This idea is emphasized and developed throughout The Manageable Cold, whether in the context of failed romantic relationships (poems like “Surgery Rotation”), elegiac portraits of family life (poems like “Snow Fence “), or meditations on the art of prize fighting (poems like “Liston”) and what this art can teach us about ourselves, whether inside or outside the proverbial “ring.” Above all else, McBride’s work emphasizes, with its careful syntactical resonances and focus on traditional metrical strategies, the possibility of a sublime order in poetry that eludes us in our everyday lives.

The sense of displacement, of “other-ness,” we sometimes feel in awkward social situations is a sort of metaphorical punching bag for McBride—who opts to tackle emotionally-charged experiences head-on rather than simply dancing haphazardly around them. I think this is what I admire most about his work: the fact that his poems aren’t afraid to pick a fight with any idea, any situation, or anyone.

McBride’s work reminds us that writing poetry is as much an activity of historical engagement and the lived life as it is an activity of the spirit–as much the act of putting words together as it is the opposing act of tearing them apart. Larkin, Yeats, and Williams are no doubt sitting up in their respective graves right now wearing Everlast boxing gloves and reading The Manageable Cold aloud to themselves, which is something you’ll want to do as well in order to get the full sonic effect of this incredible book. I’m willing to bet you a buck, a Budweiser, and a couple of free shots in the ring that all three of them are enjoying it and that if you pick up this book, you most likely will too. Time and again, this first effort displays a degree of linguistic sophistication an early-career poet like McBride simply shouldn’t possess. And yet . . . like Larkin and Yeats and Williams before him, McBride does possess it.

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J. Scott Brownlee is a poet and poetry critic. Originally from Llano, Texas, he is currently a library science graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill.