Friday, January 10, 2020

Poem366: "Scared Violent Like Horses" by John McCarthy

Scared Violent Like Horses by John McCarthy

Scared Violent Like Horses by John McCarthy, Minneapolis, Minnesota: Milkweed, 2019

I’ve spent most of my life in the Midwest … arguably speaking. I’ve been on the fringes — the Appalachian part of Ohio and southern Missouri, both sort of liminal spaces within the region, but also northwestern Ohio, right there in America’s bread basket, if you’re willing to count Ohio as part of the Midwest. (It’s got to start somewhere, right?)

Anyway, when you look at something from the edges, you probably get a better idea of what it’s all about, so I think I have a pretty good bead on the Midwest — and John McCarthy definitely deserves some overalls, a pickup truck, and a piece of hay to chew on, because he’s the real deal.

Of course, the real Midwest can be a pretty cosmopolitan place. You can eat at 25 different Michelin-starred restaurants in the Windy City alone, if you’re so inclined, and thoroughly modern industry and culture throughout the region.

But in Scared Violent Like Horses, McCarthy writes about Springfield, Illinois, and the honest-to-goodness corn country surrounding it. He proves his bona-fides by knowing the names of grain — zoysia, sedgegrass, corn, sunflowers, panicgrass, switchgrass, wheat, they all show up in this book, just as they do in central Illinois. Maybe they show up in L.A. as well, but it’s unlikely that most who observe it outside of farmland could identify it.

I have a positive impression of the Midwest, but McCarthy takes a darker view of it. Maybe it’s because cruel people and difficult situations inhabit the pages. The result is edgy sometimes, sad others, but it always feels like looking through a dirty window into a place we don’t usually get a glimpse of.

Some of McCarthy’s lush description is notable in the poem “Confirmation”:

   [W]e used to dance in The Corner Tavern’s neon light
where the pickup exhaust wafted inside like harvest dust.
   Life in the Midwest is like one long goodbye because life is the same
everyday, and I didn’t realize you had left until there was nothing
   but hard work and long days ending with the wind’s silent dirge
that sounds like trying not to die but dies in smaller ways —
   screen doors that slam shut but don’t shut all the way
because the house has settled and the roof is warping from the sky
   boiling over with thunder and rain. …

As I write this, I’m actually sitting in the lower Midwest, and the sky is boiling over with … well, thundersleet. It’s winter, after all. Practically the same, though. I find the imagery here very accurate and evocative, and it’s this way on almost every page.

Here’s another glimpse of McCarthy’s specific imagery, from the title poem, “Scared Violent Like Horses”:

            Back then, everyone I ever called a friend held fire in their fists
when they talked to me. Their fists were dingy, grime-covered, and grease-slick
      as if they were made of horsehair, as if they were untamed and lonely,
   galloping and wind-swollen. We didn’t know how to talk about loss …

I know that in the Emersonian sense, all people kind of experience the same feelings, no matter where they are: “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius.” So intellectually, I know that there’s nothing unique about the particular feeling young Midwesterners know — how they ache to escape, “fire in their fists,” “as if they were made of horsehair” (itching for more?), “untamed and lonely, / galloping and wind-swollen.” This is a violent poem, about a boy kicked dead by a horse, but it also punched me in the gut, because I remember what it was like to be young in the middle of nowhere. McCarthy’s writing is honest and accurate, and it takes me right back to where I started it all.

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