Review by Karen Weyant
UNTHINKABLE: SELECTED POEMS 1976 – 2004
by Irene McKinney
Red Hen Press
PO Box 3537
Granada Hills, CA 91394
2009, 192 pp., $21.95
What does one want when reading a collected works by a poet? The obvious answer would be that a reader would expect to see a sampling from all previously published collections, and Irene McKinney’s Unthinkable: Selected Poems 1976 – 2004 fills that expectation. Unthinkable is divided into four sections, each one devoted to poems from her four previous collections: The Girl With the Stone in Her Lap, Quick Fire and Slow Fire, Six O’Clock Mine Report, and Vivid Companion. For those who are not familiar with McKinney’s works, Unthinkable allows them to explore her poetry from the beginning—from the coal mines of West Virginia to the Oneida community in New York. For those readers who already know McKinney’s poetry, this book is like visiting an old friend.
I personally fell in love with McKinney’s work a few years ago when I was researching contemporary poetry and coal mining. On the recommendation of another poet, I found and read Six O’Clock Mine Report (well, more like devoured the book—this particular collection of McKinney’s remains one of my favorite poetry books today). Unthinkable reprints almost all of the poems from this book, including the stunning opening work, “Twilight in West Virginia: Six O’Clock Mine Report.” This poem acts as sort of an invocation for this section while depicting a lone miner: “From his sleeves of coal, fingers/from the black half-moons: he leans/into the tipple, over the coke oven/staining the air red..” McKinney ends this poem with a shot of the physical landscape:
The roads get lost in the clotted hills,
in the Blue Spruce maze, the red cough,
the Allegheny marl, the sulphur ooze.
The hill cuts drain; the roads get lost
and drop at the edge of the strip job.
The fires in the mines do not stop burning.
From this poem on, we are able to see the world of the Appalachians, with the backdrop of mining towns and nature juxtaposed with the lives of the people who dwell here. For instance, in “Potts Farm, Summer 1955″ we see “The starched doiles sag/on the arms of the horsehair sofa./Aunt Floss is baking bread and laughing/clacking her false teeth.” And in another poem, “The Ruined House of the Photographer” the past comes alive in old pictures:
And shuffling on the hearth, in broken drawers,
in sooty cabinets, are grainy photographs
of the eccentric dead. A seven-year-old girl,
her blonde hair princked in a mishaped halo
is painted like a fever, high spots
of power pink on her smooth cheeks,
lips touched outside their outline,
the staring drills of impossible blue eyes.
Many of McKinney’s poems record the worlds of others—but there are several that provide moments of self reflection, rooted in the natural environment. For instance, in “Before Spring” the poet observes a bumblebee that arrives before spring and who has fallen in “through the open door with a nimbus of cool air.” The poet notes how she is like this lost insect, “inexact, out of place, inappropriate again/in my bad timing and repeated, cyclic lack/of synchronization.” In another poem, the poet likens a personal relationship to the earth below: “Listen: there is a vein that runs/through the earth from top to bottom//and both of us are in it./One of us is always burning.”
As mentioned in my introduction, Unthinkable contains poems from all of McKinney’s collections. I was not familiar with McKinney’s work that was published before Six O’Clock Mine Report, so reading much of this collection was like reading a whole new work from a favorite writer. Still, I was not surprised to see McKinney capture rural landscapes in The Girl with the Stone in Her Lap (originally published in 1976). In many ways, poems in this section act as a prologue for the work that has yet to come, capturing the rural life of the Appalachians. Most of the poems revolve around the themes and ideas found in “The Durrett Farm, West Virginia: A Map.” This prose poem catalogs the poet’s observations of place and memory, explaining, “The farm is 150 acres of some tillable land, stands of timber, hay meadow, cow pasture, rocky hillsides of blackberry briar and sumac.” This poem also establishes a foundation for many of the other works found in this section including the eerie and beautiful “Summer Storm in The Animal Graveyard” a work that depicts a place where wind “stands up and walks” and a storm “breaks out, galloping” but also offers a litany of buried animals including cows “who died in labor” and a horse “who died at the plow.” In the short poem, “Potatoes,” an unknown figure moves through the ground and chronicles a brief history: “The potato field at night/has a memory of trees./The crickets mention something/and forget, a rustling in sleep/between crisp sheets.” In spite of the forlorn, often lonely images, “Open Road” suggests that the narrator, in her travels, may not find anything else:
Eighteen groundhogs from here
to New York, a screech of cats
a pulpy lump of dogs, red griefs
of the earth, newly broken open.
Whatever I went for, I don’t want.<
In Quick Fire and Slow Fire (originally published in 1988) the rural landscape is still present, especially in such poems as “For Women Who Have Been Patient All Their Lives” which opens with “There is anger in the stiff bedsprings/and under the house in the black powdered dirt/ground into the blunt cracked hands of my father.” Other works deviate slightly from McKinney’s Appalachian landscape with poems that share more private moments and self reflections, often with thoughts regarding the passing of time. For example, in “Self Portrait at 19″ the poet describes a young girl (presumably herself) sitting on a front porch with a “notebook in her lap” because “she’s writing a villanelle, the third she’s tried this week.” Later, the poet notes “She will fill this notebook, and the next/in that deep-dyed purple ink, trying/to learn to type and know rejection.”
Unthinkable ends with selected poems from Vivid Companion (originally published in 2004). Parts of Vivid Companion do echo self reflections found in past works; however, many of the poems found in Vivid Companion are devoted to the retelling of the history of the Oneida Community, a religious community founded in upstate New York in 1848. Those in the Oneida community practiced Complex Marriage (which generally means that every person is married to every other person) and many of McKinney’s poems look at this world through the eyes of those in this religious sect. For example, in the voice of Catherine Baker, one of the first to arrive to the Oneida Community, she claims, “All that winter we worked in the cabin, three families/The men came in from the snow, and the air swirled/in our skirts. Beans, then. Strong coffee.” Hardships may have abounded in this rural community, but according to Catherine, “It was hard but I was in a warm place./The warmest I have known.” In another poem, “The Testimony of Harriet Worden, 1850″ the narrator describes her first sexual experience with a man, who promises “that the deepest motion/need not hurt, and he would stay with me until/my pleasure came around.” McKinney’s poems about the Oneida Community may seem to be a sudden departure from her work that is rooted in the Appalachian Mountains, but a closer look reveals that there are similar themes: the struggle to survive against outdoor elements and to provide self examination of personal lives and pasts.
For those of you who have followed McKinney’s work since its beginnings, you won’t find anything new in this collection. After all, the book is subtitled Selected Poems 1976 – 2004, not new and selected poems. However, I hope that perhaps some readers will be a bit like me—familiar enough with McKinney to read favorite poems again and again, while discovering the new works we may not yet know.
Karen J. Weyant’s chapbook Stealing Dust was published last year by Finishing Line Press. Her most recent work can be seen in 5 AM, The Barn Owl Review, Copper Nickel and Lake Effect. She lives, teaches and writes in Western New York.