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Nick Sturm on Anthony McCann

I Your Fate

Anthony McCann // Wave Books, 2011

Review by Nick Sturm


Anthony McCann’s poems are full of words. But these words are not “language,” with all its signifying heaviness and representational baggage. Rather, the words that build the poems in I Your Fate are charged and tangible. They are dreams solidifying and soaking in. They are little objects pushing against the darkness, and the darkness is pushing back. How does McCann do this? He loves them: “(I kiss each word / On its beautiful name)” (from “Letters of Claire and Trelawny”). Get that close, and there’s no going back. The clouds, the grass, the birds, the buildings, the sky, the trees, our bodies, the structures we thought we knew, are being warped into incredible new forms, “[f]or this is how the tiny words work” (from “Werther”). The snow is secondhand, the hedges are filled with eyes, and everything you know has been erased with magnets.


To find yourself in the middle of an Anthony McCann poem is to be surrounded by a rich, descriptive elegance reminiscent of the overpowering sense of collision and clarity that we call a dream. What appears simple becomes infinitely dynamic and fractured, objects and landscapes shift and wreck, a disturbing logic aligns what we don’t acknowledge with what we never expected, and a poem like “Putin With Lynch” occurs. The poem begins simply enough: “In the world the dwellings are all made of wood / And every house is a beautiful ship.” McCann continues:


            But there’s a parallel world there under the snow

            Of crinkling earth and little green leaves

            Of grass struggle tips pushing up through the snow

            The grass thinking snow thinking snow thinking snow

            And under the grass the system of roots

            The systemless system of dark wiggle roots

            And the master who lurks in the rooms after dark

            In his motionless hand the luminous milk


The same is true of “Your Voice,” where the world is gorgeous and breaking


     And the trees opened their shirts stepped out of their shirts

            Out of their pants stepped out of their pants

            And the trees started to weep I mean rain it was raining

            And stood there all naked and human and shaking


Indeed, this entire book is imbued with the horror and compassion of illumination. Something vast and sacred wanders through McCann’s poems and the poet is honest enough to tell us what happens after it’s touched him. “I don’t know how to begin / to touch the terrible truth,” he writes in “Draga Barbara,” and it is exactly this sincere confusion that sustains this book. In “More Dreams of Waking”


            The clouds rush over the houses.

            Each cloud with a secret name.

            No one will ever know these names.


This inability to know, to fully comprehend, is what makes these poems possible, is what makes an act of imagination, which is really an act of faith, possible. And for McCann, the poem is most definitely a spiritual experience, an arrangement of words that creates and destroys, threatens and believes.


The middle section of the book, made up of 14 poems in dactylic quatrains sans end stop punctuation, is a masterpiece. Lines collide and enlighten, make music in your skin, drift in and out of dreams, meld a shocking earnestness with an unfettered, darkly furnished imagination. “Something incredible’s wrong with this dance,” he writes, and it’s true - things are bent, there’s no pattern, the whole barely coheres – and it makes the exuberance and anxiety at the core of this poem all the more real. And the wildness of the dance is intoxicating.


            I raised my dumb flag over drab painted land

            Merciful, purple, my night hammer reeked

            Hair grew from my bottle, cracked in the snow

            Like hatpins in corners where tooth-rabbits lurk


These lines make me feel like I’m molting, like I’m very fallen over.


            The cat burrowed into me reading its nails

            I’d wandered all night in a forest of props

            Two shoes on a curb always mean something strange

            I can drive, with eyes closed, for 38 years


And again, the immediacy, the frightening lights:


            I was happy, adrift, in the spectacle fires

            When I opened my mouth little bodies came out

            In my dream there were dogs, blue feathers and dread

            The cops filmed our wounds while we strolled in the park


McCann achieves a rare kind of communication in this poem, something akin to truth, but without the intellectual mire attached to that word. It’s something more buoyant, more insidious. “The miracle gland gives my body no rest,” he writes, and this poem is equally animated, yet still remarkably casual. And it is this casualness, this straightforward voice, which makes me believe everything McCann tells me. “I can’t really imagine what anything’s like / But at times I’m compelled to recall how I felt,” he writes, and I’m left wondering if any poem has ever been this honest. I Your Fate is so good the next line might kill you. You will be very confused, and very lucky.

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