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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Macgregor Card's Duties of an English Foreign Secretary reviewed by Robert Mueller

Macgregor Card
Duties of an English Foreign Secretary

ISBN 978-1-934200-29-2
6" x 8", 112 pp.
Fence Books, 2009

Reviewed by Robert Mueller

What’s a body to do today with all this tiresome ironic chic? Look for a poet, like Macgregor Card, of wit and daring, true aplomb. Look, for example, at “Office of the Interior” from Duties of an English Foreign Secretary, winner of the 2009 Fence Modern Poets Series. Here the poet slams in enough mystery to give the dominant theme all the old leverage it needs to send us somewhere:
I hope the streetlamp will
show up tonight
in some disinterested way
once the tilted park has made it
out of view by law
Do you anticipate that it will rain?
Next volunteer
Just nod if you’re
anticipating rain

As you can see, the forbidden landscape really moves.

It is difficult for a poet of any stripe to clear away the tired pleading. My favorite among the successes is “Le soleil et le police dog.” Notice how this poem, quoted in its entirety, cuts through the menace to an exact ueber-menace:
Le soleil and le police dog
accept the offer of the road above
through the curtain of the burning geese
I hope they will not catch fire
like the nudists do in Canada
or turn my eye to fat
hot coin for dark machine
to browse on the cave-money of suicide
wet rats dicking in the rain
heaven smiles on threat elimination
and the police-dog,
and the police-dog
smiles on me
I hope I will not catch fire
Le tellement croyable police dog
Le soleil et le police dog
The full effect, and not just some of the words, is very French, now in sophistication, now in limpidity, now in sophisticated cool linearity, now in taking clear breaths, in remaining sure for what that is all worth. Plus, here is satire worthy of its pedigree, and not less sharply involving than some of Mr. Card’s longer efforts, where the fulminations are well-sustained and do not flag or strain.

Let us say that the libertine, at one time a heinous figure, is now, the poet realizes, an all-satisfying and all-neglecting father figure, suitable stand-out for the unearthly moment. Indeed the dwelling on neglect thrills, as in “I Am the Teacher of Athletes,” where a strange catalogue of heroic song-types yields to strange visions of hegemony. A kind of epinikion, the poem celebrates the Unreal World-City, makes practice of disturbed landings however beautifully evoked:
A vast ocean weed
                         through a private garden
Bright corona
                 of the zero-responsibility corral
Poems like “That Old Woolly Bloodletting” and “Gone to Earth” equally stand citizenship over on its bed, and experience a world, ours or not ours, and play the alert and sleepy tricks that keep that experience, and keep the expression and the impression (both fully honored), in the shifting movement by which to encompass a memory up to the challenge. These are good, long, engrossing poems. Suppose good writing is all you can find. Here it follows from an honest a-moral, almost a-tonal apposition to a diminished world. Another approach, a heartfelt sympathy, would not be amenable, would lend losing color. Richness should not be allowed out at ease.

How Macgregor Card does what he does, with or without regrets, is refreshing. He does not do it by any straight-line technique, however, but rather as if for each providential element you had to find a different basket. The rhythms and style of sixteenth-century lyric inform the title poem (to my ear), resulting in an awareness and polish that nevertheless deliver only one aspect of what the fuss and the trust are all about. In fact, although each new turn of the page is not always surprising, there is always some surprise when reading Duties of an English Foreign Secretary. Thus in “Rule of Hospitality,” where the shimmering logic and virtuosically plain language track a conceit of making love and not either war or international incident, these complex angles arrive unexpectedly on a lightly-textured surface. Part of the surprise is the special use of metaphor (“rule” the vehicle, “attraction” the action and “fear” the distraction), and if that were not the case, then metaphor itself might run the way of a common thread. In “Shipfilm” you can tell that the poem relies on water as metaphor, but you can also tell that the metaphor is watery, that it flows and spreads, and that its composition, as metaphor as well, is unique. In similar — and uncanny — fashion the good “Libertines’ Announcement” veers toward bottomless appeal. Upending robustly, it unwinds from a not obvious wrapping, to the end that its guiding metaphor might just be a shelf in a library stacked with all the poems of its kind, the kind it seeks to lean on.

The poems and the library of the poems: maybe such are the key and the potent modifier for a language so fierce at pushing in solider clips. So often the poetry is terse, quick; and so often the poetry becomes, what poetry can be at its best today with our revived intelligences, a mode of prescient footnoting to some book that has been written and has yet to be written. These are the actuals: a pleasant heirloom, a permutating conviction. That is to say, these sources present themselves both in real and in quandary fashion, and can be inhaled, and can be recaptured, with or without sourcing. So often here the source-hunting would be a pastime; and so often the source-feeling, a fulfillment and a paradigm. It is not as if the phrases beg for quotation marks, not that at all. Rather they have a peculiar and lovely ring, and then I want to nominate a source. And you can have your candidates, too.

One further notes that repetition of whole lines adheres to willful formalism, and then one knows of the widely differing charges that give rise to formalism based thereon, and then how skillfully Macgregor Card re-uses, or ignores and refuses, the formal charges, troubles their aspectual recurrences so as to dissolve out all the skill, and then the “Pantoum” itself that drags down and dead. So there is indeed a line from poem to poem, a certain unpleasant, even, respect for the line, even, but even this formal aspect remains in, or achieves, isolation. It is remarkable how the writing stirs to this brilliance of discrete positions and types such that you do not dismiss it — all the while that the brilliance gets washed out, even though not washed up, not that either. It may not seem exhilarating, but with the right attentiveness you will feel it move and your pulse quicken and quicken, as when the cries of “Nary a Soul” extend and extend.

Yet what is hard to make of the writing, just as it persists at the verge of disturbances, is what cannot be denied: That at times it suffers. It breaks down and suffers, with or without meaning to. Thus in a few instances the search for resonance may be difficult, stalled in a trope for affirming without sounding, detained in whiling away refreshments at late neutral zone.

What, though, of the pleasing variation of word choice, the semblance of order and mission that can so take you in? This from the opening out of “Gone to Earth” is wondrous strange metaphor and delight:
I should have slept in a balloon
gone to Earth
hissing to own the sea
it is so difficult you dear
to be an underestimated resource
with the handshake of a coward
owned in thin air
I should have made an entry—
More than clever taunt, “Gone to Earth” achieves as full poem. A haunting mystery distinguishes itself ex and pro nihilo and may represent Macgregor Card’s best claim and best true moment, though again not as defining moment strictu sensu. Definition is, by way of deflation of brilliance, strictly averted; the moves are confident, but evasive, take themselves down studiously.

To undertake the challenges of Duties of an English Foreign Secretary is to follow a fine and tricksome fashioning and not to fall beleaguered by control for control’s sake. In the meantime, would that it were true, richness will not have its way. Lord keep us from the cold!

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