A couple of weeks ago I received my copy of Canadian poet George McWhirter’s new collection of poems, The Incorrection, and I’ve savored my way through it, first at one serial go, then dipping in and out like a sandpiper nibbling amidst sliding sea foam at the beach.*
There is no way to summarize, coherently characterize, or anatomize this collection. First, it is large: 186 pages, or roughly three of what we’ve come to accept as average-in-length poetry books. Second, it is astonishingly varied in subject, tone, and technique—although these are distinctively McWhirter poems, by which I mean there is no other poet you could imagine writing them. Third, McWhirter’s poetry can be difficult: it’s a rare three consecutive lines that don’t discharge at least one metaphor, allusion, historical reference, or pun—and occasionally all of these occur in the same three lines. If pressed to make some kind of overall statement about The Incorrection, I might fall back on comparisons: Seamus Heaney meets Groucho Marx; Stephen Sondheim meets Mel Brooks; W. B. Yeats between the sheets with Madeline Kahn; etc.
I’m not going to attempt a full review, which the book richly deserves but which I fear it will not receive—not south of the 49th parallel, at least, where this wonderful poet is little known. What I will do is offer up one of these new poems—among the best? I’m not prepared to say; I’ll only say it strikes me as exemplary in its linguistic verve and its peculiar mix of quotidian and the numinous:
There is a mangle in my chest
that makes the constant cranking
of my respiration somewhat antique,
an ancient pressing process
of arm and handle, dark, wrought-iron
hubs and water-weathered
Sud-sped and expelled,
the breath passes in long coarse sheets
laundered down to the raw cloth,
folded in two or three to fit the gap
in the dripping lips of the rollers,
but they twist; they misalign and stick,
and the handle has to be turned in reverse—
the breath squeezed out. Out, not in.
And every time one is done,
the work hangs perfectly unseeable—
or unseemly in the air
with some grievous stain or sputum
stuck to it like the gobs
off the glue-coloured washing soap,
or the olive green bricks that tempt one
to hurl them at whoever ordered
the heavy work, the heaving up and down
in the tub of my chest.
I ask whose laundry this is.
Clouds fly by, unafraid to be on show
in this warm day outdoors,
where the long grass
is about its business of podding
and popping, the whin—what they call
broom here—compelling me to say
it is time to spring clean from the inside out,
and in the big demesne of the atmosphere,
one stands lost in a corner of one’s yard—
energized and lost, panting
wanting to know—whose laundry
this is I do inside me.
Beyond this taste of it, all I’ll do here is recommend The Incorrection to anyone who relishes language not just as self-expression, but as a game of energetic association and word play (a socio/political/spiritual Rorschach), a grab bag of quirks and coinages—anyone, that is, who is weary of the “plain style” and ready for verbal fireworks.
* Let me admit that I was a student of George’s many moons ago, and so have little distance on his accomplishments. Whether he’s writing poetry or short fiction or novels, or translating such tough nuts as José Emilio Pacheco, Homero Aridjis, or Gabriel Zaid (George’s so-far-as-I-know-unpublished translation of Octavio Paz’s great poem “Blanco” lifts off the page like a bird of prey), I find his turns of phrase and turns of mind delightful—now shadowy, now sparkling, but never easy to read through in the way I find myself reading through Ashbery, for example. This is because George is the most physical poet I know; he treats language the way certain protean painters treat their paints: mixing, mashing, slathering, daubing, douching, smearing—wasting little time on finicky touch-up.