In the interest of full disclosure, Gary McDowell has made me barbecue.
He had a party at his apartment when he was a graduate student at my former institution, Bowling Green State University, and he cooked out, and damn—the guy knows his way around the grill.
He was also a Mid-American Review poetry editor, and one who also knows his way around a poem. I’ve watched him vet submissions, and many times I’ve seen him passionately articulate why a poem is both beautiful and necessary. We always took those poems. Who would dare not to?
And now, as a reader and of his work, I can attest that he knows his way around page and pen. He proves this yet again in Mysteries in a World That Thinks There Are None (Burnside Review Press, 2016), winner of the 2014 Burnside Review Press Book Award.
The defining characteristic of the poems in this collection is, in a word, trust. McDowell leans into his images and never once doubts that they’ll hold the weight of his reflection. The logic of his images may not be familiar, but it is durable, and it makes for muscular verse.
And there is certainly tenderness, too, as in the end of the title poem:
Once I saw
a video of a leopard killing a monkey, eating her, then finding
the monkey’s infant in a nearby patch of overgrown grass.
The leopard coddled it, licked its head, tipped it over
like a doll, fell asleep by its side, ears alert. It’s a wonder
any of us sleep at night knowing what we know.
It will be some time before that orphaned monkey and remorseful leopard leave me—and please don’t say “anthropomorphism.” I know what I saw, even though I saw it in a poem.
I also like McDowell’s very unusual means of observation. He writes, “Young me wanted to be / an architect, a builder of skulls / and ceilings, a maker of homesickness.” The idea of an architect as a builder of skulls is very dependent on the context of a poem, where a strange skull, neither clearly bird nor mammal, is encountered, but that idea that an architect specializes in making homesickness—that stands alone and makes you think of ways you might steal it for your own yet-to-be-determined purposes.
McDowell trusts, too, his rhetoric. There are certain arguments that can be made convincingly only by poets or the concussed. Either tries to convince through stridency; both layer fish scales and sequins into some larger quarrel about light and who owns it, then offers the flourish of an arm and says, “See?”
And you do see—like in this snippet from the poem “December”:
Have you ever put your ear to a tree
on a cold day
and clapped the trunk?
It echoes like stitches being removed
from a head wound.
There’s no way it echoes like that, logically—and there’s no way it doesn’t, once you’ve encountered the logic of this remarkable poet in this remarkable collection.
I remember talking poetry with Gary in the world’s messiest office (mine—I recall Gary as a pretty tidy guy). Shakespeare and Emerson and Louise Glück loomed over our heads, and we would sort through the argument, the logic, the voice and tone and diction of a poem. We’d talk about what we liked and what we worried might not come through. We started to make some headway.
It’s fun to look at the work of a mature poet and remember that poet “when.” But Gary, a very good poet as a student, is nearly unrecognizable in his mature work. He’s in a whole different category. He eavesdrops on angels. A consummate fisherman, he casts into a silver lake and somehow knows exactly where, deep within, the wise old one is moving. He keeps wiggling his lure, ready to take this ancient one on.
An interview with Gary McDowell …
What did you want to be when you grew up, and why?
First, I wanted to be an illustrator/animator and/or an architect. Then I learned I wasn't very good at drawing. Second, I wanted (all the way up to my sophomore year of college) to be a computer game programmer. Then I learned that I wasn't very good (read, AWFUL) at differential equations and other super-duper advanced math. But I also loved language (hence the computer programming obsession), so poet/professor made sense, eventually.
What is the very best word in this collection? Explain.
"Wonder." It's the one word I wouldn't want to be without. It's a shame to me when I hear people talk about having lost their sense of wonder. With all that happens to us throughout a day, a month, a year, a lifetime, we have to always remind ourselves: Be amazed at the world. The moon always rises, the stars spin their webs around us (or us around them), our bodies beat and thump and breathe and bend. The world is full of wonder; we just have to remember to find it.
Describe your worst poetic habit.
Not spending enough time championing the work of others. Sure, I teach the books of poets I love. Sure, I recommend books to others, rave about them on my social media accounts, but I don't do enough of what you're doing here, Karen. I don't review often enough, I don't write publicly on the work that deserves it. And goodness knows there's a ton of that kind of work out there. I'm trying to remedy that; I've a couple reviews in progress that may be published in a very visible forum, but I need to do more of this. And plan to.
It’s time someone put out an anthology of poems about ___. Explain your reasoning.
Fishing. I know, how pedestrian?! But I cut my poetic teeth, so to speak, on the imagery, the language, the timelessness of fishing. Being out in nature, on the water, not being able to see/know the thing(s) you seek: So much of the activity and the space in which one does it is poetic. Hell, I might have to make this anthology someday.
It’s your poetic obituary! Finish it up, but not with your bio—finish it with an essential statement about your poetry.
Gary McDowell was a poet to whom life happened; he chronicled it honestly but with fervor and respect for Nature and nature. The poems, for all they are missing, represent best his view of the world and its mysteries.
Gary McDowell is the author of five collections of poetry, including, most recently, Mysteries in a World That Thinks There Are None (Burnside Review Press, 2016), winner of the 2014 Burnside Review Press Book Award, and Weeping at a Stranger’s Funeral (Dream Horse Press, 2014). He’s also the co-editor of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry (Rose Metal Press, 2010). His poems and essays have appeared in journals such as American Poetry Review, The Nation, and Gulf Coast. He lives in Nashville with his family and is an assistant professor of English at Belmont University.
Editor's note: This is the Jan. 2 installment of Poem366 (#2 out of 366 entries this year). If you are a poet or publisher who would like for me to consider a title, I am happy to accept physical copies (printouts are fine) of recent titles. At this time I'm considering only full-length collections published by established presses (no self-published work). Feel free to mail a copy to me at Karen Craigo, 723 S. McCann Ave., Springfield MO 65804.