February 15, 2009

Review by Ted Gilley

by Damon McLaughlin

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

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.

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