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Book Review: Bluebird by Shane McKinney

March 22, 2012

Poetry is not music. A song is a canned whiff of emotion, to be consumed on an as-needed basis. A poem must be taken in hand, manipulated, comprehended. For that to happen, poetry needs a degree of solidity, which the work of McKinney has. Beyond that, there is a tendency for it to crumble, melt, re-fuse,  and eschew stability. But these breaks from definitive meaning surround unequivocal expressions of confusion and indecision. Structure reflects content.

Bluebird begins with “Escape,” a poem that works well as an introduction, telling us what to expect and what will be expected from us:

if my

come lately dreamworks are bled out

of liquid crystal prayerbooks – please, comprehend me; forgive my digressiveness

my world watchers seem trained on the pall blue cast from heiroglyphos… yes

i know how much i squander myself

inside the margins

like glass blown into sharp angles

broken stelliform, antlered lithographs;

We are confronted with challenging poetry and simultaneously an author who seems sincere and ready to reveal himself. Readers and writers are often taught to treat difficult language as evidence of dishonesty. As one particularly famous poet has said, “more often than not in poetry I find difficulty to be gratuitous and show-offy and camouflaging, experimental to a kind of insane degree.” But in a culture glutted on competing spiritualities and ever splintering ideologies, perhaps a writer needs to be difficult to honestly present his experiences with that culture. (If not, camouflaged and show-offy poetry is still fun, and if having fun is bad, where does that leave the work of Billy Collins.)

When I read patiently, sometimes all the obscure diction, inverted syntax, and otherwise indirect language coheres into a definitive scene, as at the end of  “Hotel Parking Lot:”

so

i fashion a dire needling piquant

to profound the aching derma,

lavish it over

the zealous curvature

where a little blood letter

elopes

in my hand

in my heart.

Other times, I can only discover a haphazard connection between the words and non-linguistic experience; still, the poetry remains a stream of pleasant sounds and images. But what most excites me are poems like “Burke:”

oh please,

i crave a moment of old confusion,

biding time to smother

once more in these cheeks.

the

soul

;

out of sound –

i won’t come “broken”

as a fish

gilled

into the the dead of night.

In five word, the soul out of sound, I count three ideas. The soul emerges from an assembly of sounds. Or the soul is powered by the auricular and has now run out of fuel. Or the soul, once trapped by physical vibrations, now escapes. Though very different, the speaker’s attitude makes them all seem plausible. Concepts are syntactically huddled together, but semantically pulling apart, and this sort of tension is what gives poetry its fertility; the reader can grow what she will here.

But beyond being a general writing technique, the ambiguity also exemplifies the narrator’s own uncertainty, an issue explicitly returned to several times. The nostalgia for childhood that poets have so often expressed these past couple of centuries, here appreciates not just the novelty and richness of the child’s world, but also its definitiveness:

Such careless colours, our infancies! Silly heights from which we slipped from stems

Like amaranth and coved into severities of absent space – a strolling yaw of worlds

And scattered vows; remember how we bound our eyes in eternal postulates?

Eternal postulates! Abiding assumptions. Everlasting guesswork. The nostalgia seems here mixed with condescension and even contempt. As if saying, we know better now than to believe that we can know anything.

We can further understand the narrator’s ambivalence toward the Romantic mode in his treatment of the ocean. Traditionally a symbol of generation and birth, in “Alms” it becomes something false, a cover-up for a cover-up, another source of confusion:

The oceans are blue liars,

Anyway; a flotilla of false mirrors that disembowel the ether

Into a calotype of ceiling murals,

Tinning the veil; the gules

have absconded.

But maybe this isn’t so surprising, since the author treats birth itself with skepticism and perhaps aversion. The closing of “First Requiem For The Last Birth” offers my other favorite ambiguity in this volume:

Nascence

Is the death of One.

If I’m reading this right (and as always, I have no idea if I am) this is intended to mean both that (1) every birth implies a future death and (2) the birth of the individual is the death of unity. The second point is a very interesting, worthwhile idea that I disagree with; birth and individuation allow new and greater unities. The individuation between cells makes possible the unity of the multi-cellular organism; between people, the unity of society. A unity not struggled for with birth and death is perhaps better described as mere absence. I believe that distinction and unity are duals of one another, each made possible by the other.

Though very different kinds, certainly both birth and death are separations. And separation is pain. So any rejection of either is relatable. But more interesting yet is McKinney’s inversion of birth. Again from “Alms,” this comes immediately after the above image of the ocean:

And anymore, I’ve no inner spur;

I’m born deep into your arms, warm

And atmospheric,

Lunged in an organ’s misty breath,

Coaxed and carried like an infant bruise,

Swelling in the plexus.

Here the narrator tries to return to infancy, elsewhere he stares at youth as something strange and alien, and finally he’s mocked for never having left it, never having grown up. McKinney avoids talking about maturity, that word we use to console ourselves when we’ve lost our urge to create and become, when we’ve been fully integrated into the daily workings of our socio-economic machine, having nothing but an already-many-times-rehearsed role to play. None the less, one thing he seems to be doing is trying to build an alternative to the childish/mature binary, where one lives out one’s responsibility through creativity.

I’ll briefly return to the themes of confusion and contingency. I’ve been told by experts that biological information could have been encoded in chemicals other than DNA, but once DNA was landed upon, things weren’t likely to change. That is, so many billions of years ago chemistry and chance made lasting conjectures about what should constitute life here on earth. Similarly, so many thousands of years ago, rhetoric and chance made lasting conjectures about what should constitute truth. We may reject the particularities of Homer, the Bible, the Tao Te Ching, the Veda,and a few others, but I believe the underlying patterns of thought have not and will not be escaped. So what? Thanks to combinatorics we can make seemingly limitless variety from the building materials they’ve left us with.

And due to the cataclysmic changes to our economic and epistemic situation brought about by modern technology and capitalism, we’re living through something like the cultural analogue to the Cambrian explosion. What I admire about McKinney’s work is how it embodies this chaos while simultaneously describing it – and as we move forward there is a heightening struggle to transcend it. This is done most explicitly in the final piece, “This Is How I Saved You.” A five and a half page poem, I don’t think I can usefully excerpt from it. But you can buy the book over at lulu.com. And much of the author’s other work is available on his deviantArt page.

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3 Comments
  1. Nicely written review. It’s clear you understand poetry!

  2. I am happy to see such a thorough and thoughtful review of one of my personal favorite bodies of work, Shane’s Bluebird. I have re-read this book many, many times without cohesively collecting a coherent review, merely guessing at the messages and psychological states that birthed the many ideas of his art. I am both jealous of and grateful for your ability to speak so decisively and cleanly about it.

    • Cool! Glad to come across another fan. All we can do is guess, I guess, as to the authors actual intents. But that’s part of what makes it all so awesome. I don’t know. Thanks for reading and commenting!

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