OUT HERE by Joseph Keller McNeilly, alicejamesbooks, Farmington, ME, $17.00, 192 pp.
Review by Martin Abramson first published in Book/Mark, Spring 2002
When the talk turns to family
you dart your eyes, turn
skittish, and bolt into the cracks
of our conversation
like a lizard flushed from his sunning spot
on the garden wall, your tail twitching
as you slither into the pauses, the dark
and the cool and the safe
between stone words.
The man has a way with words. However much he may paint himself as a grizzled, leathery desperado, his poems are honest, four-square structures each as perfect in every detail as any model sailing ship, terrarium or HO train setup sporting a 1st Prize ribbon at the county fair. From the evocative illustration on the cover to the last poem on page 176, you get your money’s worth and then some from this beautifully constructed book. I finished it with both my brain and scrotum engorged, each with its own ambrosia. The fine workmanship of the poems holds, preserves and decants its emotional freight like vintage wine. It’s comforting to run across a mature, seasoned poetic talent whose pages don’t cause us to wince at awkward phrases, solecisms and poor scansion. These poems have been polished and honed to a fine edge, yet they retain the sturdy, oaken honesty of houses that will stand the storms of time. They have earned the right to speak, even to sing about things witnessed and dreamt.
] Writing in a serious, masculine voice, McNeilly talks of everyday occurrences in rural towns, surrounding fields and shores. His verse has the rhetorical tone of a litany, seldom lifting to the lyrical but never relaxing into plain prose except where appropriate. Dressed in worn denims and scuffed shoes, the verse often has the cadence of a farmhand teaching the new guy to string fences or run the harvester. But it’s poetry all right. While there’s no shortage of brilliant imagery and metaphor, the domination of ideas is what leads us hurrying along an ascending path in each poem, making us impatient to attain the full complement of meaning it bears. This is what makes it so difficult to quote individual lines; every atom of every poem is an inextricable element of the totality. Its power comes from the totality and can seem like a chloroformed butterfly if set apart.
These are story-poems that reflect lives mostly blasted by time and circumstance, but still harboring some obscure plenitude of grace. Examples could include the eleven, shabby parishioners in Sunday filing out of a moribund country church at daybreak; the migrant worker pedaling his decrepit bicycle in His Pedal Go Click, Click, Click; the mother relentlessly watering her zinnias in The Semiotics of Flowers, or the diner waitress whose “elbow reached for heaven” as she poured coffee in Common Ground.
McNeilly often writes of the infirmities of age; the betrayal of once smoothly-running muscle, of brittle joints and clenching prostate. Perhaps he plays the old age card a bit too hard at a youthfully rugged fifty-one (if the photo at the back is anything to judge by) especially considering all those seething erotic poems set in the present tense. But this is merely the quibble of a sixty-seven year old reviewer who would love to regain his 51-year self. Of course, any poem certainly has the right to don whatever persona it chooses.
McNeilly’s knack of creating synergy by tying disparate things together is apparent in a piece like, Of the Princess, the Automobile and Bad Art, where he uses the death of Princess Diana as a springboard for an analysis of the automobile as an example of artistic abortion: “this grotesque boxy thing on wheels” in which we move “in a slow sea of such boxes/ to our work”. It’s a fine poem, but dragging Michael Jackson in as an example of such ugliness is hard to forgive. I hope he’ll edit this out in future editions.
The book is filled with people: ordinary, everyday, tragic specimens drawn from any small town or city you care to name. In the poem, A Dirty Little Secret, McNeilly revels in the obscene fleshiness and vulgar handicrafts of a country fair. Other poems depict the torments and ecstasies of childhood: Saving Acts of the Imagination stands out particularly in this respect. Many poems dwell on women the writer has known or lusted after: most notably, in so many passionate poems, his wife. There are wonderful poems about the subtlety of memory such as Macondo, which speaks of “clicking blue grass/ in a hot brown field/ stored for fifty years/ in a neuron”. Many allude to the difficulty of contacting other human beings and the empty exercises we indulge in to escape the pain of isolation; one such, he is honest enough to acknowledge, is writing poetry. McNeilly never elides the ugly aspects of life: gross eating habits, unpleasant body parts and bodily functions, freaks, monsters and grotesques swarm through the book. But he softens the attack somewhat by being hardest on himself as in Class Comes Calling, where he enumerates more petty, felonious and vile things about himself than I need to know about anybody. He teaches us about what life should be in pace and posture through poems like Looking Down; Man,Walking; and In the Manner of Lions.
I hope this rather superficial smattering of images will lead some readers to go deeper into the dense fabric of Out Here. It leads us out into the blinding light of the real world as few books can. It deserves our attention and richly rewards the effort.
Review by Martin Abramson