Joshua McKinney — The Novice Mourner

Josh McKinney, sporting his new Gary Snyder haircut (or was it a Lance Armstrong cut?) read nearly twenty pieces from his new collection The Novice Mourner published by Bear Star Press. The short-cropped hair and cowboy boots seemed apropos of a redneck shitkicker past that McKinney claims in the book, which is very distant from the effete elliptical type that Stephen Burt and others have proclaimed him as. Nowhere was this neatly compartmentalized past self more apparent than in McKinney’s piece called “Gun,” the highlight of the evening. In “Gun,” a collection of short prose poems inhabited by Bonnie Parker and populated mostly by childhood vignettes about his father’s sidearm pistol, McKinney intoned the words descriptive of his father’s (and now his own) pistol—the Ruger “Blackhawk” .22-caliber single-action revolver—in such an incantatory manner that it made it possible for a brief moment to truly believe in and devote oneself to the raw power of firearms.

Many of the poems in The Novice Mourner stand in stark contrast to Saunter, McKinney’s previous book that won the University of Georgia Press Poetry Series Open Competition in 2002. The Novice Mourner is seemingly much more autobiographical. It is the place where McKinney negotiates and wrestles with his past (in particular with the spectre of his bitter and authoritative father) at the same time providing reminders of his experimental tendencies. The discontinuities and fragments which are emblematic of much of the work in Saunter often give way to, in a case like “Gun,” brutally straightforward narratives where McKinney’s aim is to reveal arrived-at truth rather than truth searched for, shaken, separated, and reticulated.

This adaptation of style to fit content shows that McKinney is not a slave to current fashion and that he understands that form needs to serve the content it delivers. The poems I admire most though are the ones that maintain their narrative thread while introducing a healthy amount of meditation on the events, placing the events within the arc of humanity’s struggle and exhibiting the reach of an energetic mind. <A HREF= A Principle of Perspective is a terrific example of how a son’s battle with his father (though the son is not completely equated to McKinney through the use of the first person I) can be the backdrop for a meditation on the need to acquire distance from a colossal event. In this poem the event is one that upsets the typical father-son power relationship. The perspective that evolves passes through normal tones until a “sinister” one develops to inform the living.

But it is not enough for many to simply admire poems. Many readers wish to love poems and the authors who write them. They look for the familiar forms of persons they know in them. And McKinney delivers this to them as well. In “In Other Words” the speaker informs the reader of how the past wreaks havoc on his thinking. Then in stanzas four, five, and six, a scene with an old woman begins to emerge. An old man (the father who likely appears in “A Principle of Perspective”) exhibits some odd behavior, and the speaker is left to interpret it, to interpret the slow dissembling of this man at the end of his life. The last two lines prove that the thing that makes one human might also be the thing that leads one to ruin. McKinney cautions that the higher faculties doth lead us astray.


Light tactics splay over the ground,
and the clothes twisting
in wind, the shirts and skirts
forming like tall thoughts,
make sight a plea for mediation.

What sinful, crazy architect
concocts a past in tatters?
The light. The wind. I grew up
tall, thinking the way a chain twists,
winching engines into air.

“Back in the spring of” is how
it begins. In, at, on—the little
words that make place possible.
Telephones revise the fields,
which is why I am twisting even now

into the patchwork of an old woman’s
apron, her hands without tactics
to clothe her husband, naked,
stumbling into a field to call
his dog, dead now for years.

I call no one and the tale survives
another telling. We embroider place.
We clothe the wind and lash it
to our backs. Power is always naked.
How could I tell them his stories grew

better in his last months,
the squeamish garments of a past
cast away in tatters, his words
strangely light, attendant to the world
and free from the idea of it.

Death seems singularly prepared to make its face seen on nearly every page in The Novice Mourner, not unexpected in a book primarily about grief and loss. McKinney read his pieces plaintively, in an even tone that enhanced their solemn nature. The stare into the harsh abyss requires such a steady voice. That earnest tone is spread liberally throughout the book. There is very little of the nimble elision and undercutting of pronouncement seen in McKinney’s other work. The speaker in the poems of The Novice Mourner is urgently delivering a message to his readers: the world is cruel and crueler when looked at in hindsight. In fact, in “In Earnest,” the only piece in the book that takes respite from the past and places the reader in a decidedly Sacramento landscape, McKinney seems to elevate death to a kind of noble gesture, a kind of success that can be had when the time comes for there to be no more expectations about living. The salmon gracefully move towards their end, and in doing so, reach something like epiphany at the moment they expire. In this, they are “almost nothing, almost all.”

Even the love in The Novice Mourner is brittle, susceptible to disruption by catastrophe knocking at the door. “The War at Home” is one of the most beautiful and poignant poems about the current war in Iraq and how the presence of war can unnerve even those in a remote domestic setting. The effect that the war has on the speaker is reminiscent of how young Israelis who serve in the Israeli Army seem to inherit blindness and fury just by their proximity. The young soldiers are poisoned by the atmosphere. In “The War at Home” husband and wife suffer the same fate at the hand of a world that rudely encroaches and destroys habits of caring for others.

It’s Tuesday, nearly Christmas,
and the kids have gone to school.
It’s the day I work at home, the day
we’ve planned to set aside
some time, a few hours, to talk,
to touch, to take a walk around the block
among the falling leaves, and then
beneath the quilts to feel the chill
go out of us. Perhaps to say
some soft and secret thing unplanned,
perhaps to doze—if only to wake
still holding one another—and then
to rise again, to carry the glow
of union through the day.

We sit down to read the news
and by the second cup of coffee,
stop. The specters of the daily dead
assert themselves, and I can read
the disappointment in her face,
and worse, the shadow of a tired resolve
that looms up now, a merciful distraction:
there are goods to buy, and the car needs
gas. And I, too, in the mood now
only to be intimate with my anger at
the world. What used to come so easily
to us is now the victim of our broader view,
which narrows like this season
and its sun, like our grim smiles
as we tell each other, silently,
that we will make no time for love.

These lovers are a little too experienced in the world. They let their grief about its violence and chaos manage their time. However, not every poem’s speaker is similarly afflicted. In “The Novice Mourner,” the speaker seems psychically unprepared for the next calamity even though he expects it. Knowledge is scarce. What befalls the speaker is a sense of living in the world among the disparaging ingratitude of imminent tragedy. The tragic always announces itself as essential.


This may not be the end of something.
If the cat in the window knows anything,
she’s not talking. For three days

his hands have smelled of pine,
clear eyes closed to study the blue moon
where the hammer kissed his thumb.

Food shadows lengthen, counting lulls
between determined moans of ambulance
and cottonwood. All those dishes to return.

His neighbor leans on a lawnmower
purple-faced; even his once-luscious
wife wears life like a thin gown.

He scans obituaries for names of the living.
The mail slot sings its avalanche of grief,
anticipating spaces for every shotgunned

sign post, for every forgotten squash
turning to water under a canopy of leaves.
Any minute now, the phone rings.

Perhaps the great irony (or is it justice?) in The Novice Mourner is that the view of the world as harsh and unforgiving that the father in many of the poems inhabits is now adopted by McKinney himself. The circle is complete. Another father has jettisoned his burden for a son to carry. As McKinney’s past surfaces and is processed, it cannot escape submission to the grim requirements of the serious consequences given on any particular day.

It is a testament to Beth Spencer at Bear Star Press that she is able to let a variety of styles commingle in The Novice Mourner, for the real glue is the emotional weightiness of the subject matter. The stylistic variance is also tribute to McKinney’s understanding the game of sloughing off labels that have been affixed—as X kind of poet or Y kind of poet. The tone of the book can deaden joy at times, again understandable in light of the subject. However, if one bears down and is willing to immerse oneself into the craggy depths of McKinney’s level-headed look at the somber, the result will be that one begins to feel like a cancer survivor (on a long bike ride), like one has endured a long, tough battle with an adversary who plays as unfairly as life in the world does.


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