February 15, 2009

Review by Ted Gilley

EXCHANGING LIVES
by Damon McLaughlin

Backwaters Press
3502 North 52nd St.
Omaha, NE 68104-3506
ISBN 0979393485
2008, 71 pp., $16.00
www.thebackwaterspress.com

The opening pages of Damon McLaughlin’s Exchanging Lives carries a quote by Hermann Hesse, author of the novels Siddhartha and Steppenwolf, among others: “What isn’t part of ourselves doesn’t disturb us.” In view of what is to follow, the reader may benefit from a look at the full quote: “If you hate a person, you hate something in him that is part of yourself. What isn’t part of ourselves doesn’t disturb us.” As a novelist, Hesse was concerned with—some say, obsessed with—the revelation of the self. Perhaps most famously in Steppenwolf, he explored the painful division of the self in the novel’s hero, Harry Haller. In Hesse’s time—and strongly, again, in the Sixties—the misanthropic, chronically dissatisfied Haller stood out as a romantic figure, misfit and loner—the lone wolf of the title. Dissatisfied with modern life, unable to bear its tinny culture and the petty life of the bourgeoisie, Haller is all too aware of what he hates—and psychologically aware of the seeds of hatred within his own soul.

In McLaughlin’s poem “The Misfit,” the stakes are considerably lower. In the role of poet-as-detached-observer, a favorite stance throughout the book, McLaughlin sketches a coffee-shop scene that loses us almost before it’s under way: “I tell Lyle about The Meadow/because he comes to Starbucks to talk/and I have nothing of my own to say.” The poet having nothing to say seems to put a damper on things, but we’re also wondering what the heck The Meadow is . (We don’t find out.) A kind of conversation follows, with Lyle—the presumptive misfit, though that’s questionable—doing most of the talking. He’s a little bit nutty and a little bit … nutty. Not so much a misfit as a man with loose ends, dropping a line about Kervorkian, a line about Kennedy, and a philosophical lead weight: “Good people are hard to find.” “I’d tell him he’s lonely, but I don’t know how,” the poet remarks, laconically, and a few lines later: “ … I study him like he’s stuffed,/his mouth moving with its puppet’s gift of gab.” Which may be intended to demonstrate that whatever isn’t a part of us doesn’t disturb us; but a certain level of contempt in a poet goes a long way, and is indeed disturbing.

The poet creates a fine tension in “Instincts” as he speculates, while walking through the woods, on his wife’s thoughts about their missing dog. Her imagined rumination becomes his, in a way, or is joined to his own thoughts. The poem’s power lies in McLaughlin’s willingness to step away from himself and simply talk about loss. The necessary surrender that this entails occurs too infrequently in Exchanging Lives.

At his best when not telling a story, McLaughlin lets himself go in lines like: “A sheet waving with the linens on the line/of a sun-filled afternoon in summer … ” Nothing of consequence occurs here (“Poise”) but we welcome the poem’s digressive, warm imagery that suggests both the condition implied by the title, and its undoing:

she floats between the layers of here

and there and now

and then

In “Gravity,” the poet muses on the falling of a leaf, in whose wake trail his thoughts on the passing of time and the nature of memory—fit subjects for a poet otherwise inclined to shoot first and ask questions later, and the stronger for sticking to the facts that open and close the poem: everthing dies.

Equally strong, but in a very different vein is “Pisces,” in which the boy-poet and his father—was there ever a more loaded subject?—look up at the night sky together. The father, eating sardines, describes to his son the subterranean world in which tiny fish glow, miles deep, their blue and pink flashes a form of communication. The boy is imagining a watery cosmos: he looks out far while his father looks in deep. When offered a bite of sardines, the boy asks his father why it tastes smoky, and his father

… traces a constellation with his finger.

Somewhere up there is why.

We’re not sure if the final line is supposed to be the father’s reply, but we don’t care: its ambiguity is completely, strangely satisfying.

Less than satisfying are the poems in which the poet lets his imagination run away with him (and away from us). In “Riding the Light Beam,” a veritable parts poem splashed onto the page in a Seventies mode, the images pile up quicker than you can say, “Which way is this going?”:

I slip past

into this sea stars

populate so rapidly even I

lose count after awhile—great calyces

corollas kaleidoscope the spectrum

and the spectrum shatters

and collects like quicksilver.

Tanzanite spins […]

I am always surprised (as I probably shouldn’t be) to discover that so many otherwise intelligent men and women simply can’t say no to free verse. Its requirements—clarity of thought, order, simplicity—are daunting. This is not to say that more poets should embrace forms most of them, and perhaps many readers, would consider antiquated or unmanageable but to suggest that more of them try to understand that the freedom in free verse is largely illusory. Perhaps instead of saying no, they might simply take the time to get to know one another a little better before jumping into the sack, or into print.

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Ted Gilley is a writer and editor living in Vermont.

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