A Book Review by John Samuel Tieman
When a poem is at its finest, it is concrete, set in time and place, specific yet transcendent. Like a hymn, it exists both in the voice and the soul, in the text and in the mind. By these means is it savored and remembered. Like that hymn, which transforms notes on a page to prayers on the tongue, so the true poem moves from craft on the page to emotions in the reader. One danger lies, ironically, in being too crafty, that moment when the poem calls attention to its cleverness, rather than its purpose.
J. D. McClatchy is one of the most distinguished living poets and editors. Educated at Yale and Georgetown, he edits The Yale Review. He is the author of six collections of poetry, one of which, Hazmat (Knopf, 2002), was nominated for the 2003 Pulitzer Prize. He is the author of numerous works of criticism, and the editor of over a dozen collections of poetry, including The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry, Second Edition (Random House, 2003).
Mercury Dressing shows McClatchy to be master of craft and content. He would be classified, by many readers, as a traditionalist. Meaning herein is much of the rhyme, much of the classical allusion and traditional poetics. For example, one of McClatchy’s poems, “Sorrow In1944”, is a sonnet sequence. In two of the sections, rather than ending the sonnet with a couplet, he ends with a rhymed tanka, an ancient and demanding form of Japanese verse. Both sonnet and tanka are executed with precision.
But there is more. “Sorrow In 1944” is a sequel to Puccini’s opera, Madame Butterfly. It imagines what happens to the illuminate son of Cio-Cio San and her American lover, Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton. In Japan, Cio-Cio San named the boy Sorrow, although we come to know him as Frank Pinkerton of California. McClatchy’s sequel is a well told tale that, like all great stories, rises above itself. In a poignant passage, a passage that risks sentimentality but avoids it, we see the father not as the handsome young naval officer of the opera, but as a dying man consumed by regret. He tells his son —
“So long ago … What was I thinking of?
They said she called you Sorrow. I don’t know why.
We give the silliest names to the things we love.
I killed her, I guess. I called her Butterfly.”
To his credit, McClatchy avoids what has become a modern cliché with regard to Butterfly, which is to say that it is set in Nagasaki, a point that lesser craftsmen accompany with drum roll and cymbal crash.
McClatchy’s poems range from the good to the masterful. When they are masterful, they tell a great story, paint a vivid image, are artful. When they are good, they usually call singular attention to their artfulness. Meaning their cleverness, rather than their message, comes to the fore. The reader is aware of poetics rather than poetry.
Such is the case with the eponymous poem, “Mercury Dressing”, which opens —
To steal a glance and, anxious, see
Him slipping into transparency —
The feathered helmet already in place,
Its shadow fallen across his face
(His hooded sex its counterpart) —
Unsteadies the routines of the heart.
Curiously, I rather like the flow of the poem. It’s smooth, even. The problem is that I see the poetics rather than feel the poem. For one thing, I’m not exactly sure what interpretation to apply. I’m inclined to interpret it as a gay love poem, whose objective correlative is the god Mercury. I think. But I’m distracted by the clichéd opening. The fourth line seems to be there merely to hold a spot for the rhyme. And I can do without “routines of the heart”. Then there’s the problem of concrete believability. If the god is “slipping into transparency”, how does the narrator see the helmet so clearly? And when a god disappears right in front of me, it seems like my heart would be unsteadied by a bit more than “hooded sex”. My point being that the poem never quite transcends itself. For all that, I actually rather like the poem. It’s polished, clever.
There are a few other spots in the collection that suffer this same problem. That said, these are minor reservations. When judged as a whole, this is a masterful collection by an accomplished poet.
Reservations aside, McClatchy deals with a variety of subjects in a style that is both graceful and eloquent. Love. Longing. Disillusionment with love and longing. Narcissistic challenges. The Seven Deadly Sins. Inspirations brought to us by great music and myth. There are two self-portraits, one in which he compares himself to Alcibiades. In the other, he compares himself to the Antarctic explorer Roald Amundson. The poem ends —
I have always known that I would be the one
Not just who found but wanted to find the abstract,
Meaningless point on which the planet turns.
“[T]he abstract, meaningless point on which the planet turns.” Like so many of his poems, there is something both eloquent and stark about these lines. In another poem, he tentatively rises early, starts his day both busy and confused, thinks of Dante’s Purgatory, then returns to his bed, to his lover, “not knowing if I’d stay / not knowing where I’d been.” Thus it continues throughout. Not simply great lines but great insights to be remembered, revisited.
Mercury Dressing. New York: Knopf, 2009.