Sunday, February 25, 2024

FAME by Kevin McGrath


FAME, Kevin McGrath. Saint Julian Press, 2053 Cortlandt, Suite 200, Houston, Texas 77008, 2023, 253 pages, $25.00 paperback,


            Unlike most contemporary poetry being written in the English language—particularly contemporary American poetry—the poetics and structure of FAME are not what Megan Fernandes, author of I Do Everything I’m Told (Tin House, 2023) calls an “artifice of mess.”

Kevin McGrath describes poetry in the Afterword, and enacts on every one of its 252 pages of tight, what he calls regulated verse, as not existing “except in a formal and harmonious state… that forceful coherence suppl[ying] us with our necessity and location….”

            Written primarily in iambic tetrameter, fitting almost always seven stanzas (centered) per page, dividing this long poem (it cannot really be called a collection) into four parts that McGrath lays out for the reader on page two (“I - 2”) as “four winds.”

            There are four winds about the world

               That move within the human soul

               First – the strange attraction going

                        Between a girl and boy


                  The second takes us on in time

                     So that we might look back

                  At the residence and procession

                     Of what is lost upon our way


      The third is the emptiness that

         Fills up our breathing days

         As we go toward our source

      Its quietness makes us more still


         The final air is that of beauty

         Quick ephemeral always true

      The breeze that makes substantial

         Everything we do not know

         Song of what we cannot say



The center or subject matter or tension in Fame is a recreation of the hero’s journey of Achilles as emblematic of the “one narrative in this world,” this work reflecting that pattern in each of its four sections of 1) the Attraction between male and female; 2) Time’s arrow; 3) Emptiness; and 4) Beauty.

            Reminiscent of the adoration passages spoken by the writer of The Song of Songs from the Biblical canon (e.g. “Behold, thou art fair, my love; behold, thou art fair; thou hast doves’ eyes within thy locks…thy lips are like a thread of scarlet, and thy speech is comely: thy temples are like a piece of a pomegranate within thy locks”—from Chapter 4, vs 1-3), are the one-hundred pages of section I, of which stanzas from I-21 and I-22 follow:


            They come and go and trespass

                        Freighted with desire

               Young women of the spring

                  In their summer dresses


                     Crocus yellow hyacinth

               Their golden shoulders bare

                        A green text burning

                        Sweet upon their lips




            The nature of my love is this

               I witness you as no other

              When you are mine to hold

              Refining our warm volume


            I love your bones and your smell

                  A scent of leaves and rain

               At the hollows of your joints

               My hands confess their love


And in section I-67, a long piece defining the essence of love, we seem to have an answer to the above passages, at least in part:


               Love gives us tongues and insight

               It fills us with concupiscence

            Without love we are empty creatures

          Phantoms who cannot speak nor touch


            His voice removed my loneliness

            Just as his strength took my lust

               In his person I find a home

               And in his sleep I find rest


Many references to “Time” in section II are told “slant” as Dickinson suggested and exemplified: (“Being drawn by the not-having / And then in the satisfaction / We still miss the conclusion / To this long endless call” from II-2; “There is only one day ever / In our live and one occasion / For vision to be complete” from II-4; and “These slow hours are insufficient / For you [to] sleep far away content / Unaware of how life could rest” from II-7 are examples.) However, in II-23 McGrath speaks more directly to “Time” from a subjective perspective:

            On my sixty-sixth year on earth

               I walked out for distraction

            Loving the sand loving the dust

               The unmasking of the air


            A firm wind from off the lake

               Was bevel on the hot light

            As if desperate for release

               For destiny to be complete


            The distance were hazy and

               The low brown hills at rest

            As my years gathered close

               Awaiting their dismissal


            So much time so little place

               So little achieved in living

            Yes this is where my heart stays

               Where I wish to sleep


            Section III brings us to “…the emptiness that / Fills up our breathing days.” Examples of images that haunt these lines are “…a field / Surrounded by speechless stones” (III-1); a “perfect sphere” that “appears when we close / Our eyes and there is no sound” (III-2); “…life is a mirror…/ …no one is truly present” (III-3); “light becomes quiet // / The river empty of boats / No one works the ridged fields” and “…an infinite sea” where we “ Submerge and leave no trace” (III-5); “…a river made of shadow / Flowing deep into the earth” (III-8); a “universe…made of night / Of coldness…/ …no shadows moving / Among silent minerals” (III-9); “A glass of water…consumed / … / …life becomes invisible” (III-12); and again, “…a mirror / …. / Called solitude when we / Become absent from ourselves” (III-18). And yet, McGrath never falls into despair, holding onto a belief in love—"When love calls from a distance // …no one sleeps nor deceases” (III-13)—and a belief in beauty, which is the focus of Section IV.

            There are three causes here

               Driving us among the days

                  Drawing us through time

            Where beauty is unspeakable [italics mine]


            In section four, the first three sections (attraction between lovers; time’s arrow; emptiness; and beauty) are re-capitulated and emerge from McGrath’s pen as birds and other winged creatures (swallows, fireflies, dragonflies, kestrels, and falcons, e.g.) to carry love aloft, epitomized by the love of Achilles (IV-15):

Achilles you loved too much

               You went beyond this world

            Only your horses knew your way

               And there was no zero at all


This first stanza re-introduces Achilles and the reader understands that McGrath has been writing about him all along:

            Your song became beautiful

            Perfectly light and sonorous

            You went so far out of time

         Unbound by the breath of words


In III-14, McGrath opens with a passage that captures, for this reader, perhaps the most insistent of the many themes in this dense, yet musically lyrical tome:


            The choirs that compose our lives

                  Birds cicadas wind rainfall

               Someone call out our name

               When there is no one present


                        So we lightly part the air

               With words or with footsteps

                        A vast immortal order we

                     Do not observe yet inhabit


In Fame, Kevin McGrath parts the air with music that rivals the best of classical poetry, drawing from all three genres: the dramatic, the narrative, and the lyrical. Readers will be elevated to musical and ideational heights for generations to come, reading this epic poem, so unusual these days for its beauty of language and coherence of thought.  





Sunday, February 11, 2024

IT BEGAN, by Michael Jemal


IT BEGAN, Michael Jemal. Blue Light Press, 2024, 15 pages, paperback,


Poetry chapbooks are intended to be small jewels, each poem a facet of material cut from the same slab of language, reflecting light from a slightly different perspective. At times, poems find their way into the manuscript because they are favorites of the poet or because the poet doesn’t have enough material on the main theme to flesh out the book. Not so with It Began by Michael Jemal. Each poem not only begins with the anaphora “It began…” but the “it” that is introduced at the beginning of each poem becomes a Rorschach test, interpreted by each reader according their background—in their living, their reading, and—if a writer—their own work.  

As a poet, as well as a reader, I find that each poem can be an ars poetica—a poem about poetry itself—as well as a poem about love—love for writing or any other life-changing endeavor, or love for a person. Thus, in the Prologue, the first line can become “[writing poetry] began when I accidentally / stepped on your left foot / and you broke / into a million excuses.” It can just as easily become [Our relationship began] when I accidentally / stepped on your left foot…” This first stanza develops themes of both love and writing so that the final stanza yields a conclusion to either one: “I have so many stories in my pocket / I need to unwind. / Have you ever seen / inside the body / of a meaningful thought. / There are so many shades of despair, / I’m almost ready to shout.”

            The tight focus of “It began” that begins each poem also allows for a capaciousness of subject matter, but the poems themselves provide cues for what each “it” may be without intruding into the reader’s private interpretations and by never closing a poem in a neat, tidy bow, but rather always leaving room for mystery. “It Began 1,” for example, ends with “There was no way to know / when I opened the door to the bathroom / and stood in front of [a] mirror / I would wonder / who was looking at me.” “It Began 9,” beginning with “It began after the divorce,” ends with “Different people do different things. / Take anything you want, take it all I say. / We are what we don’t throw away,” once again leaving the poem open at the end. And in “Epilogue” (“It began when I went to the mailbox”) the poem ends with “Inside the envelope sheets of blank copy paper / stapled together / as if it were a novella I needed / to meditate on, / rethink the characters / and keep track of their frailties. / Characters who needed to find /their own way to the epilogue / despite how lost they were. / That much I am certain,” leaves a wide bandwidth on the dial of what the narrator is not certain.

            The power of these poems lies, in part, with the reader’s expectations being subverted by their enjambments and unlikely pairings of words—in the case of “Prologue,” adjectives with nouns, and verbs with objects of prepositions.

            It began when I accidentally

            stepped on your left foot

            and you broke

            into a million excuses.


            Breaking (pun intended) line three after “broke” is a gesture that changes everything in the poem and puts the reader off-guard for the remainder of the poem after reading the line “into a million excuses.” The next couplet does not disappoint with “What good is love without a few / hazard lights flashing.” Later, the lover morphs into the writer with:

            I’ve been patching myself together

            for years.

            I’m brand new.


            If I put on my best pants

            will you dance with me tonight.

            I have so many stories in my pocket

            I need to unwind.

            Have you ever seen

            inside the body

            of a meaningful thought.

            There are so many shades of despair,

            I’m almost ready to shout.

            The entire book’s structure can be said to alternate between language either more conducive to love or to writing, without squeezing out the possibility of the other—both in poem order and in the order of stanzas within the poem. Poems 4 through 9, e.g., are ostensibly about love, beginning with the opening lines “It began as a nightmare / When every time I tried to whisper / into the ear of the woman beside me / wisteria leaves flew out my mouth” and concluding with these final lines from “It Began 9” about divorce:

            What’s worse than being told

            you are not loved.

            It’s like falling to the ground

            after you’re already on the ground

            or giving up your wants

            to hold onto everything you’ve ever wanted.

            Different people do different things.

            Take anything you want, take it all I say.

            We are what we don’t throw away.

After this series of poems about love, we have the following opening lines to “It Began 10”:

            It began when I received

            a postcard from myself

            “There are no miracles” it read,

            “without strings attached.”

Poems 11, 12, and 13 (Epilogue) continue this theme of writing after the divorce with lines such as “It began when I accidentally / walked into a room full of strangers / who used bandaids for hatchet wounds” (from “It Began 11”); “…I’ve promised myself I’d change, / become a better man. / Someone who will consider / experiences as an irreplaceable / puzzle piece to his life. / A man with a dependable door / on the back of his head / that won’t easily open…;” and finally in the epilogue, a return to interpretation that can easily hold both writing and love and any other thing that one might be passionate about:


            It began when I went to the mailbox

            and found a manila envelope from you.

            How did you find me, I gave up

            my name years ago

            when it was still possible to become yourself,

            despite the many disappointments.


            Inside the envelope

            sheets of blank copy paper

            stapled together

            as if it were a novella I needed

            to meditate on,

            rethink the characters

            and keep track of their frailties.

            Characters who needed to find

            their own way to the epilogue

            despite how lost they were.

            That much I am certain.


            It Began is indeed a tiny jewel box of glimmering poems that not only please but make us want more. We can only hope that this chapbook is true sample of what is to come from this poet whose poems are rendered with perfect timing and a voice we can immediately trust—that future readers will write about Michael Jemal’s work — “It began” with a small chapbook that was the beginning of a poet’s significant contribution to the canon of 21st century poetry.