Wednesday, December 29, 2010


Clusters of new light

A few months back I came across a copy of Gerald McCarthy's book of poems Trouble Light (West End Press, 2008) at the Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver, when I was there for the AWP conference this year. McCarthy's first book of poems, War Story (The Crossing Press, 1977, long out of print), about his experiences in Vietnam during the war and back in the United States afterwards, spoke to me deeply when I read it years ago shortly after it came out. I hadn't realized he had a recent book out, and I was excited to find Trouble Light.

Gerald McCarthy was born in Endicott, New York. When he was 17 he joined the Marines and was sent to Vietnam, and after his time there he deserted the military. After he was released from military prison and civilian jail, he worked as a stonecutter, shoe factory worker, and as an anti-war activist. In the years after that he taught writing at Attica Prison, in migrant labor camps, jails and schools. He currently teaches writing at St. Thomas Aquinas College.

McCarthy's poems always feel to me full of sorrow, a great sadness at the struggle and suffering of human beings in the world. Not mired in sorrow, but rather carrying it as a kind of healing work. These are poems of a terrible clarity, an understanding that the chance for survival of life on the earth begins with telling the truth as well as one is able to.

From the poem "The wounded" in Trouble Light (from which all the quoted passages here are taken):

A group of wild turkeys
feeds on the juniper and bearberries
near the entrance to what the locals call
the other Arlington --
a hillside cemetery off the old King's Highway,
and that light is coming toward them.
If you listen you can hear
the soft clucking sounds they make.
Today in the glare of the supermarket light,
my son makes me look at lobsters
piled on one another in a plastic tank.
They don't move much in there, he says.
They're stunned, I tell him,
their claws taped up, waiting.
Outside in the late March dusk
a cold rain on stone, you think of them --
trapped in their tanks
or hospital beds.

McCarthy's poems are grounded in the snow and ash landscapes of old industrial towns, the weariness and longing of dusty light, the tired faces and canny intelligence of the people who live their lives laying the bricks of such places. ("This is not hell," said Lorca, "it is a street./This is not death, it is a fruit-stand.")

The Erie-Lackawanna trains are the ghosts
of summer nights.
A town of freight yards,
tanning factories, time clocks.
A town that smelled like leather.

I walk the ties through yards
and loading docks, remember
crawling between rails,
watching the headlights of sheriff cars.
If I listen I can almost hear the sirens,
glimpse the smudge of orange sky
beyond the smokestacks.

I push open the door to Ernie's Grill
on the North Side of town, the Italian side.
His hands stained brown from shoe dye,
John Robinsky cursed the heat, swore
the union would never get in.

It never did.
They quit making leather from cowhide.
They closed the factories,
laid off the workers.

Robinsky raised pigeons because it was
something he could do.
We used to watch them lift off
and carry those messages away.
Nobody answered, John.
No one heard anything
but that flapping of wings.

(From the poem "Note in a bottle.")

There are poems here of the deep quiet almost unspoken friendship that grows up between people who grind away doing the daily work of the world. A particular kind of insight can come to a person in the drive and monotony of assembly-line light (that light which manage somehow to be too glaring and too murky at the same time). Years ago I knew a woman who worked during the days sewing moccasins in a factory. In the evenings she struggled to be a musician. "What do you do," she wrote once, "when you run out of daydreams at ten in the morning?"

In Johnson City at Tri-City Beverage
in 1968, Sully and I
pulled quart bottles of ginger ale
two at a time from conveyor belts.

We stacked the wooden cases row on row
the pallets pushed against spinning metal rollers.
The first day a bottle slipped
exploding on the concrete floor,
I shook, startled at the sound.
The crew boss laughed and shook his head,
you never know, he said.

Down the line
the dispatcher called out --
two-five, four-five.
The bottles
clinked, slid toward us in wet rows.

We ate our lunch out in the open
straddling the stacks of empty pallets
in the company yard.

You don't have to be a genius, Sully said,
to see where this job leads.
Broke, spending our last dollars
in a factory bar, I knew
I had to leave some things behind -- the town,
the long days of work,
and Sully, gone half-crazy with his own years
there, alone, grinning in the half-light.

(From the poem "Station to station.")

At the moment of history in which we current live, the purported political and cultural leaders of the United States -- and corporate financiers standing behind them -- blythely trumpet the standard cliche rhetoric of empire and conquest, weeping (when necessary) the customary public tear over the sacrifice and loss of (American) sons and daughters and mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters, in the name of whatever product they're trying to sell this week. In his poetry Gerald McCarthy explores the meaning of genuine conscience actual morality, an engagement with real life that refuses the standard drum-and-bugle chatter.

Whenever I see piles of leftover snow
gray and muddied by the new spring,
whenever the first snowcaps
push up from the tufts of frozen earth,
and spring seems to pulse and then
fade, whenever the light lasts
too long -- stark and stretched out
like a line of smoke,
I think of you.

Twenty years ago
I drove all night through a Midwest snowstorm
in the old Ford pickup that bucked through the drifts
until I lost control of the wheel --
off the road and
over the edge.
And in those few moments before
the crash, I thought I knew
what pain and loss were, I thought
I knew what it was to drive
all night through a storm that did not end. [...]

[...] Today, looking down,
caught off guard by soft petals,
scattered, spread like clusters of new light,
I called your name, as if
in that harsh one syllable
I might find more than this
hollowed-out place in my side.

(From the poem "A small song for Luke.")

McCarthy's poems have an insistent tactical quality that hangs on, even when the ostensible subject or location of the poem roams far in the world. The poems in Trouble Light are a kind of journey, a kind of seeking, reaching for the stones and branches and streams and doorways of commonplace life, and an insistence on the value of this life.

From the poem "Spanish Steps":

And now it's just these friends
who've led you back
through crowds,
the march for pace
over, the streets closed off.
You walked all the way
to find the little chapel of San Silvestro
where nuns sang a capella the chants
of peace, the tiny wooden door
opening to take the change -- and later
the church of the Quattro Coronati,
and then the piazza,
the streets leading down again.
Those songs stay with you still,
hymns to a stillness, unheard
and sweet. [...]

[...] Pilgrims, your Italian friends say,
pilgrims who've come to see the barque,
Bemini's fountain beneath the rooms
where Keats and Severn stayed.
I lost my son here once you tell them,
he ran ahead of us, down into the crowds at night.
He was six years old then, panic hit.
And there below, at last
we saw him --
playing chess with older Roman boys
who'd gathered to watch him play.
It's like that really, the quick
sting of loss that comes
because you're honest and don't know how
to cover up. A death so sharp and quick
it takes your breath away, and infant son's death,
his hands so small they cling to your finger
holding on for life. You cannot
turn away.

We took our sons to Cumae,
to see the cave where Aeneas
asked the Sybil for advice,
we saw the sea beyond
the caves, and climbed the stairs.
How sad Montale said
memory at its fullest
has no one to hold it back.
And still this small hand reaches out
like foreign voices chanting songs of peace,
a view from shuttered songs along a river,
silver coins tossed into a moving stream.

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