Review by Chris Jarmick
WHAT I SAW
by Jack McCarthy
24041 S. Navajo Drive
Channahon, IL 60410
2012, 96 pp., $15.00
Jack McCarthy is best known as a performance poet, one of those people most are too quick to define as a spoken word poet as opposed to a page poet. Jack insists he’s a slam poet, but most people have a pre-conceived notion of what that means—and it doesn’t seem to fit Jack at all. Jack is a storyteller and a master of a particular style of prose poetry. When he recites, he holds his audiences spellbound. His three to five minute poems mix a sharp, often humorous personal observation with pathos and poignant moments that bring tears to the eye (resistance to this is futile). Then he proceeds to read another poem and does it again.
His poems are highly crafted and refined, even if in performance there seems to be a laid-back conversational style to many of them. On the page, his poems work almost the same way. If you’ve never heard Jack read, you still hear a distinctive voice and have the advantage of seeing his carefully chosen words and structured phrasing when reading them on the page. This is rare. Performance poets usually write with their oral presentation in mind and a lot of the color, emotion and power isn’t in the text, but in what they bring to it as they recite it for an audience. On the page a lot of the work of these poets isn’t usually vibrant nor particularly interesting.
This is not the case with What I Saw, Jack McCarthy’s latest collection of poetry.
It begins with a Simon Weil quote: “Don’t insist on understanding new things, but try with your whole self, with patience, effort and method to comprehend obvious truths.”
The first poem, “The Accommodation: Adam’s Recollection,” illustrates the message of this Weil quote. Adam and Eve are having a conversation. They are no longer in the Garden of Eden and are learning to fend for themselves. The poem seems to be setting us up for a joke, but instead develops into something else entirely and delivers a poignant message, an obvious truth. It does this quietly, effortlessly. You’ll probably read it again just to try and figure out how it was done so smoothly. It’s there in front of you, the lines, the words, and there’s no magic going on that you can perceive, no trick, sleight of hand, or anything you can identify as formula. We are surprised by both its concept and execution.
The next poem, by its very title, promises to be raunchy—it’s called “Chipmunk Booty Call. ” Surely we’ll encounter some ridiculous sophomoric humor here. But no, not really; there’s a tale being spun about observing a chipmunk darting out onto the road in front of a car, leading to thoughts of why the chipmunk is risking his life and trying to cross the road. It triggers a past memory, and it does dance with a touch of sophomoric humor, but then arrives at something you might call a simple truth.
We move on to the next poem, “Magnum Iter” (a Latin idiom meaning “Forced March”), a mini-epic three part poem weaving a story about the education of several young men that encompasses Jack’s experiences with his brother and trying to deal with a nearly-possessed, impossible-to-please Latin teacher. The story is brought to life with occasional references to modern pop culture, ancient history and humor related to some painfully awkward experiences. Despite the occasional Latin phrases and various references, it is not difficult to read or understand.
“Magnum Iter” is nine pages—the longest in the collection. This is not a ballad or ode and there’s no consistent meter pattern. It could almost be a short prose vignette, but more than just the line breaks define it as a poem. The enjambments create a pacing that slows down how you might read this if it were traditional prose. Most of the lines also focus on one idea or image, sometimes setting up the next one to follow, or repeating the one from before, but there’s sparseness to each individual line that you’d lose if it were written as prose. However, it is not written with the spare declarative language some poets use, but rather in a conserved conversational style. It seems to breathe, and you might observe some of the words in a line perhaps are not absolutely necessary—but you’ll also discover they are not wasted. They have a reason to be there. You may not even be aware the first few times you read the poem all that is at work in terms of theme and craft, but there is more to admire as you look closely.
The dreaded Latin teacher Mr. Hatch at one point confronts the young student.
I don’t remember so much
the content of what he would say
when he caught you out
but it felt like, gently, “Why
don’t you know
the present subjunctive of sum
Mr. McCarthy? “
“I don’t know sir.”
And then a few lines later in italics, Mr. Hatch’s voice becomes more forceful:
“Have you ever in your life been asked to do
anything more important than memorize
the present subjunctive of the verb to be?”
“No sir.” Then bellowing,
like the Minotaur
thundering toward you
from every direction of the labyrinth
“THEN HOW COULD YOU NOT HAVE DONE IT?”
“I DON’T KNOW SIR.”
And I was one of the lucky ones.
I didn’t have Mr. Hatch till senior year
The dedication at the beginning of “Phlogiston: Jack McCarthy’s Universe” reads: for my first wife, the mother of my daughters.
He explains what phlogiston is, how early scientists decided there was “an element whose weight was negative,” which they named phlogiston. And this idea is tied into his first marriage.
Did we love each other?
we believed we did;
maybe it’s the same.
and later building a case that there is a connection he writes:
We sensed something we couldn’t see.
we weighed the evidence
of phenomenal children.
We read on, continuing to wonder how science and this phlogiston concept will align with his analysis of his first marriage. It starts to come together when he mentions “anti-matter” but we aren’t quite there yet. Eventually we understand his logic and how he makes the connection.
It’s one of the pieces of writing that you enjoy and then wonder, “How did someone think of that?” It’s a really odd conceptual thought to have and then to decide to write about it as if there is logic to making a connection between phlogiston and his marriage—where did it come from? Why did I get caught up in it, enjoy it as I might, reading about a detective making a brilliant deduction from a piece of evidence that solves the case? Did he really make the ridiculous seem utterly plausible and logical? It would seem so. Nice trick. Except at its conclusion I didn’t feel tricked by the poem at all, but felt I had read something that was worthwhile, put some thoughts together I was having, shared a gift of exploring other places for connections that might ease some emotional burdens.
On page 35 (of 93 pages of poem text) you’ll find: “Epithalamion: A Few Words for Kathleen.” It’s one of Jack McCarthy’s masterpieces. It was written to be read at his daughter’s wedding.
Kathleen, when she was eight years old
started coming with me to my Friday night meetings.
that group had really good coffee,
and as she made her way time after time to
the coffeepot, I’d lose sight of Kathleen because she was short,
but I could follow her progress by watching the heads turn
to bless her with their eyes as she passed
beautiful child that she was.
I won’t ruin your discovery of this poem because it’s a beautifully nuanced poem-story that creates a very poignant and touching narrative about Kathleen’s childhood and marries it to her wedding day. It’s easy to either actually connect to the story or wish that you could. It covers a lot of territory and quietly says something very important. It never seems false, never seems forced.
The carefully crafted line breaks, word choice, and phrasing make it easy for you to hear it, as if someone is reading it to you out loud. The oral storytelling beats are on the page and require no effort to accept. It’s a poem that celebrates grace, and it is in and of itself graceful in its presentation.
“What I Saw on My Walk” is the title poem. It mimics in loose prose-poetic form the act of taking a short stroll—partially for exercise, partially to clear the heard. It slowly develops from several seemingly random thoughts and descriptions into something much more focused: a definition of love that Jack observes acted out in front of him in an unexpected manner. It dares to be sentimental—but earns it.
There are many more poems to discover in this collection. Some have similarities to the ones I have described or use a similar technique of combining a variety of memories, thoughts, images and quirky concepts into something that comes together as if all the disparate elements really were meant to come together in the way Jack imagines. There are unabashedly sentimental moments, lines and whole strophes that border on the cliché—not simply to take a short-cut or because the writer is lazy or ill-equipped, but to bring a point or message into focus. We know from the word choice, the use of language, the care with which the poems have been created that nothing has been done because the writer is taking a short-cut or doesn’t have a high level of skill. It’s being done because it’s the best way to communicate what McCarthy wants to communicate or show. It’s earned.
You’ll also find in What I Saw an occasional a side-bar sort of poem that seems written for a small number of people who have known Jack and observed him at poetry readings making little notes on index cards. But you immediately imagine this from the title of the poem:
The Top Ten Reasons Why I Take Notes at Poetry Readings
10. To remind myself that the next three minutes
might be worth remembering for the rest of my life.
My note is a pin to fix that butterfly in my memory.
When I first read the poem (with the very long title of) “After Interviewing Hundreds of Men, Miss Manners Answers All Your Questions About Men’s Room Etiquette,” I thought it was a bit crass and sophomoric. Does this one deserve to receive a degree of immortality and be in print?
If we look at this collection as one that examines a man’s thoughts in all of his relationships (spiritual, personal, cultural), then why not make sure we include one that’s built on a comedic premise. Why not one that’s mostly for the fun of it. And there’s a point being made here as well. It’s not a conscious one that McCarthy set out to make, but one that brings me back to the matter of looking at this collection and being aware of the snobbish notion that one sort of poetry is better than another.
We have developed a need to have things labeled for us. Years of packaging, marketing and labeling music for mass consumption has made it almost a necessity. What would retailers or radio stations do without labels? Is that Rock and Roll, or Alternative, or Punk, or Country-Punk? I don’t know, I give it a 9, Dick—you can dance to it.
It happened to the literary world. Beat poetry became “Spoken Word” to encompass, I suppose, poets who came after Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, Kerouac and Corso. Maybe you should hear George Carlin inside your head when someone says “Spoken Word.” What does that mean? Of course if you are reading something out loud it’s spoken word. Music from Brazil or Peru or Italy or Africa is “World Music.” Reggae, however, is reggae.
The best poems transcend the formality of the writing or even presentation, whether it is on paper or spoken out loud. Words are just words, clunky communication devices that through combination and craft become something more than symbols to deliver five senses worth of meanings, ideas, concepts and emotions.
We admire the tree, the flower, without needing to dig through the dirt and examine the network of roots under the soil to decide if it works as a flower or a tree—and so it is with Jack McCarthy’s collection What I Saw. The writing works.
When my daughters were little we used to take them hiking
in the Blue Hills. They’d say “Where we going today?”
and we’d answer, “the Blue Hills,” and they’d piss and moan,
“not the Blue Hills again?” and that would be that—
Until we got to the Blue Hills
and Megan Kathleen and Annie
would be out of the car and into the woods,
checking out frog ponds or lady slippers,
garter snakes, pine cones, toadstools or horse manure—
which they would pronounce “gross!”
(“When the Cholesterol Catches Up with Me”)
The poems in What I Saw are individually memorable gems; together a garden worth visiting more than once and in every season.
Christopher J. Jarmick’s reviews have appeared in Rattle, Rain Taxi, Raven Chronicles, Reader, Brutarian and elsewhere, his poems in Seattle Weekly, Cambridge Book Review, Real Change, Pedestal, South District Journal, WebdelSol and other newspapers, literary journals and magazines. His latest collection of poetry is Ignition: Poem Starters, Septolets, Statements and Double Dog Dares (2010), and the limited edition CD: Radio Mysteries: Aural Anxieties (produced by Kevin Gershan and featuring Los Angeles poet Michael C. Ford; 2009). He curates and hosts several poetry readings throughout the Northwest including two regularly scheduled monthly readings in Seattle and nearby Kirkland, Washington. His blog is called Poetry is Everything (Google it). He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org