Wanting Animals on Her Side: a review of two books by Lynn McGee

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Wanting Animals on Her Side: a review of two books by Lynn McGee

In a book about prosody, Karl Shapiro commented that “rhythm is the total sound of a line’s movement.” Contemporary poets who prefer free verse often seem to have a difficult time getting stressed syllables to coordinate their pivot points with precisely peculiar consonants and vowels. (Hence, the prosaic quality of much of contemporary poetry.) One poet whose gift has been honed through long practice is Lynn McGee, whom I first met back in the mid-1980s, just before she moved to NYC. Although a chapbook, Heirloom Bulldog, arrived in my mailbox several months ago, I am only now getting around to writing about it in conjunction with the very recent publication of a full-length collection, Sober Cooking.

One of the most remarkable features of Heirloom Bulldog is its thematic concentration on hunger. In McGee’s configuration, the appetite never doubts its unappeasable epistemology: it quivers through our beings as a desire ominous in its self-attachment; we cannot relinquish it except at the peril of extinction. Each individual creature in this menagerie of poems is poised at an existential edge in which its choices seem to serve as its species’ proleptic fate. Whether coyote, wild boar, lizard, python, rat, lioness, crow, pigeon, or wasp, McGee depicts the peculiar hybrid of a dilemma each finds itself oscillating within. The narrator extends her empathy (“I have always wanted animals / wanted them on my side.”), but only so far. The first poem recalls her first use of a weapon to kill a rabbit, and in doing so, she acknowledges the irreversible momentum of a predator’s consciousness: (“Something had to be stopped, / and it would not be me.”) Later on in the sequence, she conflates the imagery from a televised program of baby elephants brought down by a pack of lionesses with the end of a romantic relationship that she has terminated with equal deliberation.

On at least one occasion, McGee hints that an animal is a prosthetic symbol for her own struggle to ground herself in a solid continuity:

this invasion thrills me;

a creature that seized his place

when others said,

you don’t belong.


The same tone of fierce persistence concludes her tribute to coyotes, in which she describes them as:

….a panting blur

hovering at the edges of dreams,

not so much wanting in,

as already there.

That McGee’s poems have been “already there” for quite some time is evident in her full-length collection, Sober Cooking. These poems focus on the discontinuity of attachment; the human animal turns out to be as hungry for submersion in the company of another person as any physical pang for nutrition. That need is strong enough to endure death vigils, and Sober Cooking is especially impressive in keeping control of feelings that could easily boil over.

Sober Cooking devotes many of its poems to meditating on a love relationship with a woman suffering from a defective heart, which must be replaced if she is to survive and live to any age resembling a normal life-span. The book, therefore, flutters within a field of poetics that converts what might have tended toward the confessional school and brings it closer to memoir. The intensity of the life or death situations of these poems serves as a reminder of how we ourselves should proceed:

I see your surprised smile

as I pull out a tiny bottle,

squeeze a glistening bead

onto your fingers

I’m giving you all kinds

of permission – and I feel

that tender rush, as you

slow us down.

In “Dinner Date” McGee recounts the importance of lingering. A lover chooses an image of “a pink cactus splayed / against stucco” to magnify. The thumb and forefinger deftly coax eros out of hiding as the “lavender tongue, / ….. the nodding spiky bloom” becomes a quietly consecrated foretelling.

Of late, I have yearned for more formal arrangements in poetry, and often find myself wanting a more emphatic drum kit providing percussion to the poem’s upswelling. My guess is that not many reviews will mention McGee’s lineation. Though free verse has long gone beyond being a given poetics, McGee gives it an edge in her best poems that accentuates our language’s percussive capacities for dialogic insight into a poem’s themes.

An attendant

with a merman’s wet, black curls

rolled me down a hallway

under a fluorescent keyboard –

dark, light, dark, light, dark –

and I was stored somewhere safe.

Then a nurse was standing

by my bed, offering

apple juice and crackers,

and I was back

in the world of teeth

and trains, the world I hate

and love.

(“The Dark Visit Before a Routine Procedure”)

The alternation of dark and light is more than mere visibility. It hints at the kind of uncertain on-off switch of choice that underpins the human predicament: “There are two kinds of people – those afraid / of heights, and those who imagine / jumping” (“Flight”). The heartbeat of “dark. light, dark. light, dark” is the echo at the core of McGee’s quiet, almost whispered meditations. The pulse of Sober Cooking is worth putting your fingers to, if only to help you feel your own heart beat for all its worth: the risk of giving yourself to someone else.

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