Sunday, January 18, 2015

What I'm Reading: Weeping at a Stranger's Funeral

54º ~ straight-up sun shining down on all, light breezes, backyard birds & squirrels in motion

During my recent wrestling with a writing drought, I sent out a call for inspiration on Facebook. My poet-friend, Al Maginnes, recommended that I get my hands on Gary McDowell's new book, Weeping at a Stranger's Funeral and try his approach. While I haven't tried the approach, I have finished reading the book and want to say a few words about it here.

Many of these poems were written in the middle of the night as McDowell tended to his daughter as she struggled with colic. Each morning, he would pick a book from the shelf, randomly, and find a line that spoke to him. He'd write out that line and leave it there, waiting for the middle of the might, when he would then draft a poem around or inspired by the line.

I do plan to try to use this prompt, and I think it's wide-open enough to serve poets of any style.

All that being said, the result of the prompt for McDowell is a series of poems created out of fragments, thoughts snatched from an unmasked mind, making leaps and intuitive connections rather than linear progressions. In her blurb, Lee Ann Roripaugh calls these "mosaic worked poems." Yes, in the true sense of a mosaic made up of broken pieces, these are poems made up of broken thoughts with lots of white space as the grout that holds the whole thing together.

For me, the book is most successful being read in large chunks together. I have a hard time entering fragments in fits and starts, but when reading the poems together, their weight builds and ideas spark.

For an example of the way McDowell makes use of fragments, here are some lines from "Of Notes."

More like autumn than autumn is

Settling gravel and moonlight, and a campfire
feels its way into the dark

They used to burn coffee to cloak
the scent of death

One little two little three little

Bike racks        Fire hydrants         And all the little boys
allowed outside

unwatched after school.

The poem goes on from there, but what I want to highlight are the intuitive leaps already present. We begin in "autumn," a time of burning leaves, a time of "death." Next we get the "campfire" and a leap to the use of burnt coffee "to cloak / the scent of death." And finally, we get that eerie threat of what could happen when children are left "unwatched." The poem takes a turn back toward the innocent after this, but it is bittersweet as an echo to a reminder of mortality and danger in this world.

Reading this type of collage / mosaic poem requires me to flex muscles I don't normally use in reading more linear / cohesive poems. It requires both a loosening of my hold and a strengthening of my focus on each individual line. I have to give up the idea of a straight narrative or a "clear" lyric, and instead give each line, each word the same focus in order to bring the intuitive leaps into focus.

I'm thankful for Weeping at a Stranger's Funeral for this insight, and more, for the beauty of the lines etched on every page.


Karen Weyant said...

I just added this book to my reading list! Loved his first collection!

Gary L. McDowell said...

Thank you!!!