19 September, 2010

Joshua McKinney's The Novice Mourner

The Novice MournerThe Novice Mourner by Joshua McKinney

Published by Bear Star Press in 2005, this is a book of elegiac and self-aware poems, often about childhood, but particularly focused on the relationship between son and father. I say "self-aware" because these poems tend to signal the awareness on the speaker's part that he is constructing his story and his territory of past. The first poem, "Quick," instructs, "To tell it correctly,/ one must give/ all the information at once.// A boy sits sick in a poem..." Or from later in the book: "I am not arguing the recollected/ sun is warm. The center/ and circumference of memory opens/ a small door..." or, later: "The first concerns discomfort at finding/ my father (a decade dead) in poems." But for all of this overt commentary on the act of writing, the poems are restrained, subtle, and smart. There are archetypal moments connected to logic-- as in the movement from "What the body knows is its convenience/ and the abolished is betrayal of its house" to "In my brain's bare tree/ my dead cat clambers." Lastly, there is a strangely dissonant section in the middle of the book, a series of third-person prose vignettes ("Gun") that remind me of the kind of writing Hemingway did in the Nick Adams stories. They feel very story-driven-- concise, scaled, and of a different potential than the poems. Given how overt the poems can be about the act of writing, it is not difficult to imagine that this enacts another route the book might have gone. Its raw placement at the center of the book resonates against McKinney's refined lyric.

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