Poetry for Southern California
WHAT I SAW
Book by Jack McCarthy
EM Press (em-press.com)
This is not really a review. I normally strive to be as objective as possible about the books I review, regardless of whatever connections I might have to the poet and/or publisher. But I can’t even pretend to be objective on this one. Jack McCarthy is not only a friend of mine, he is also one of my favorite poets anywhere. So let’s just consider this a recommendation. This is why you need to buy What I Saw.
McCarthy is as much a storyteller as a poet. He tells stories of everyday life, stories that are so everyday that in another writer’s hands they would likely be mundane. But he finds the core of truth, of insight, of emotion in the everyday.
He writes from a deep humanity. He has both a great understanding of the human condition, and a true love for people, a combination both rare and, often, hard to maintain. He sees all our weaknesses, and loves us anyway.
He usually starts with some little detail, something so commonplace most of us wouldn’t even notice it at all. Then he spins his story around it, expanding out from the detail, and then circling back in to the core.
Take “Epithalamion: A Few Words for Kathleen,” a poem written for his daughter’s wedding (hence the title).
Kathleen, when she was eight years old,
started coming with me to my Friday night meetings.
At the break they’d raffle off a Big Book,
and when the meeting broke up, Kathleen
would go from table to table collecting
all the discarded raffle tickets, which she would
bring home and store in a shoebox.
Why? I never figured it out.
He goes on to tell more about Kathleen, how everyone at the meetings came to think of her as “the best/ advertisement for this program that anyone could ever see.” But then, near the end of the poem, he addresses the groom:
But somewhere among Kathleen’s belongings,
in a cellar or an attic or at the bottom of a closet,
you might still find a shoebox full of raffle tickets
that didn’t win anything.
And any time you feel that life’s too hard,
and you’re too much alone,
take that box out, run your fingers
through those old raffle tickets.
Mix them up good, and think about
how much luck it takes
to find the one person in the world
that we were meant to find.
He writes with a gentle humor, but watch out. He is fully capable of sneaking a major sucker punch into his poems, where you go from chuckling to tears in a single turn of a line. For example, the title poem describes a morning walk, and the wildlife he did, or in this case, didn’t see—bears, cougars, hawks, eagles, coyotes. There is a rabbit, and a deer, and a horse (not really wildlife). And just when you think the poem is almost over, and it is just a pleasant nature poem, he describes one other thing he did see, an “old woman...
pulling a child’s red rusted wagon
in which rode a second, no longer
able to do not much more than
lift its head to smell whatever cinemascope
high-definition three-D summer blockbuster
olfactory spectacle it is dogs so enjoy—
and I knew this woman understood that
dogs get their kick from their sense of smell
all those smells that were about all the adventure
that old dog was still capable of.
What, my darling, did I see on my walk
this morning? I saw love.
But he is never sneaky about it. As in the poem above, he carefully lays out the steps that bring him to his emotional climax. Often, his poems are as much a progression of discovery for himself as they are for the reader. As he says in “Poems for Hannah,” ”I hear my voice tell truths I never knew I knew.”
Which seems about as apt a description of McCarthy’s poetry as any I can come up with. For the surprise of these poems is not so much anything new, as things you did know all along, just were never able to put into words. Jack McCarthy does that for you.