Moongarden by Anthony McCann
(Wave Books, 2006)
It wasn’t so long ago that I was in a poetry workshop where one poet made it his mission to eradicate the word “thing” from every poem. If anyone dared to use the “t-word” you could guarantee the first discussion comment would come from him: “I just think ‘thing’ is too inexact to be in a poem.” Too bad Anthony McCann wasn’t in this workshop. In his second and most recent collection, Moongarden, “thing” comes up a lot as the poet uses this unfairly maligned word to help create the poems’ shifting worlds, blurring boundaries and looking at reality through a hazy film. There’s great anxiety in the collection over what’s real and what’s not; what takes shape and what doesn’t; what can be called a thing and what hasn’t quite reached this status. McCann explores these conflicts with tight lines, humor, and lyricism, mining these landscapes for all the strange beauty you’d expect from a collection titled Moongarden.
We can see the importance of “thinghood” in the collection’s second poem, “Ode to the Lake.” The poem begins:
I, myself, should have been a thing.
But then the things themselves appeared.
Some were called squibs.
Others, vague and old,
became the higher animals.
They were like
words painted in the lake
clouds riddled through with sun.
And they were also like
some more directions to the builders.
The speaker begins by asserting, emphatically, that he should have been a thing, implying that he is not, thus setting him apart from the actual things. Within two lines it’s clear that the speaker is alone—not just lonely, but in a completely different category from every other creature. The poem quietly alludes to the Garden of Eden as creatures suddenly appear and some are classified as “higher animals,” though in this case the creatures seem to name themselves. Regardless, this allusion, though subtle, imbues the poem with a sense of mysticism and inevitability. Yet, even as the “things” come into being, the speaker describes them through simile, a tool that compares rather than creates. Furthermore, the similes compare the creatures to ephemeral sights and sounds, suggesting that even the “things” are not quite stable.
As the poem continues, the speaker plunges deeper into the mystical landscape, yet ultimately he can only reaffirm his lack of being, which began the poem.
It’s true–I should have worn protective gear.
But whether I woke up in the park
smeared in pink and yellow thread
or when I walked around the lake
damaging the geese
I stayed exactly how I am.
So when I rush along the world
it leaves a rushing in my ears
and I am placed along the water
as the lake becomes a thing.
Although “I should have worn protective gear” is a funny line, it also reemphasizes that the speaker is at risk and the use of the conditional tense suggests that something did in fact harm the speaker. Yet, immediately after bisecting the poem with this jarring line, the speaker dives back into the world of strange and ephemeral things—even something tangible, like thread, or simple, like walking around a lake, is rendered strange by the actions of smearing and damaging. And yet despite all this the speaker “stays the same”; he is still not a thing, which is reaffirmed in the last line as he sits by the lake as the lake becomes a thing. By the end, “thing” seems to be a substitute for presence; if an object, be it an animal or a lake, takes space and matters in this world, it is a thing. The speaker, who only echoes the sound of rushing, is empty; he has no presence in the world.
By viewing a thing as something that has presence, a direct connection can be made with the collection’s equal obsession over physical shape. Both “thinghood” and shape serve as proof that the object exists, which is why the speakers are obsessed with these categories. In the poem, “Miami International Airport Hotel,” the speaker mediates on this issue, jumping between physicality and thought. The three-part poem begins,
The alarm goes off—I’m still in the airport. Is it impossible to imagine my physical shape? I was dreaming of jobs again and of t-shirts that scream “Chicago!” And then I am absent, suddenly, accepting the fact: it remains impossible to imagine this hotel.
Within these opening prose lines, the speaker jumps between the physical that can be verified—the alarm, the airport—to a large question about whether he too has shape, physicality. As he can’t picture his shape, he becomes absent. The hotel, which initially looms large, succumbs to the same fate. The loss of shape becomes a loss of self; if shape cannot be imagined, then the person or place cannot exist. Placing the poem in an airport hotel fits this theme since, as anyone who has ever had the unfortunate experience of staying at an airport hotel can attest to, it is an unexpectedly eerie place; you aren’t supposed to be there, yet you are, so it’s easy to loose track of yourself, and that is exactly what happens to the speaker.
McCann doesn’t only slip between the ephemeral and the real, but also between schools of writing. In many ways McCann draws on Romantic tropes—“Ode to the Lake” is one of many odes in the collection, for example—yet he pairs them with a sense of post-modern irony, creating speakers who are aware of the trap of sentimentality and try to resist it, but ultimately are sincere in their emotions. This movement can be seen in the poem, “Ode to the Sky (Seattle).” Beyond using the ode form, this poem draws on Romantic sensibilities through its beckoning of the beloved and awe of nature. Yet, throughout the poem McCann uses vocabulary pulled from a myriad of sources and constantly undercuts any sentimentality with ironic humor, all tools taken from the post-modern tool kit. The poem begins with the sky, and then moves indoors where the speaker and his beloved are talking. (Though, I should add that McCann does not lay out the scene in such a prosaic manner.) The speaker then breaks the scene with a memory:
we were sitting on this iron bench
above the north south interstate.
All my nerves
deep in your pants.
the sky turns green, then gray
and pink and black.
This memory, recovered
without the guidance
of licensed professionals
just this very afternoon,
may not bear up under
But I know the sky was blind
and my extremities were trembling.
In this passage alone the poem bounces back and forth between sincerity and irony, a veritable poetic ping-pong match. First, there is the calling of a memory, a sentimental gesture, and then the assertion of sexuality and expectation, but with great humor—how do nerves get stuck in one’s pants?— and then back to beauty, the sky’s amazing shift of color, which contributed to the importance of the moment for the speaker. Then he undercuts the whole memory with a drawn out joke that also works to question whether the moment happened at all. And yet, the speaker can’t let it go, asserting that he knows something important happened that day, asserting the moment’s sincerity. This back and forth movement between styles allows McCann to have his cake and eat it too. Lines that might seem too clever or cheesy in a poem running on either an ironic or sentimental tone become unexpected and exciting in a poem pulling from both.
Be it shifts between the real and the ephemeral or sincerity and irony, Moongarden is ultimately about being caught in transition, and what a beautiful and horrible place it can be.
Rebecca Guyon holds an MFA in poetry from St. Mary's College of California. Her poems are published or forthcoming in Denver Quarterly, 6x6, Octopus, Parcel, Strange Machine, Avatar Review, and more. She has reviews published in The Hollins Critic and forthcoming in Anti-.