Handle with care.
By J.D. McClatchy
Knopf. 83 pages, $23.
J.D. MCCLATCHY'S first two books were extremely decorous affairs. They did not try to please everyone, of course, but they seemed designed to win the approval and appreciation of those whom he regarded as his masters, particularly James Merrill, who was a close friend and whose poems and prose McClatchy has edited. This is not to say that the poet took no risks, but those he took were ones meant to delight his betters.
Since Merrill's death, McClatchy's poetry has taken on new vitality, freedom, and daring. It is as if he were living out Harold Bloom's theory of the Oedipal relationship between strong poets and their followers, so that only with Merrill's death has McClatchy allowed himself to handle the "hazmat"--the hazardous materials--that every poem of value must get its fingers on. McClatchy hasn't rebelled against Merrill--the last poem of the volume, "Ouija," is dedicated to him-but he seems to have been released from Merrill's immediate oversight. As "Ouija" points out, McClatchy no longer needs to consult his muse. He has internalized whatever voices from the dead he requires.
"Quija" is a fitting conclusion to the book, because its subject is how even the best of literary fathers and personal father-figures have their limitations. McClatchy comments that Merrill's "fresh acolytes" failed to see "how little [Merrill's] detachment/ had to do with the demands of a formal art/ Or a mind at once too sovereign and too spent." Only now does McClatchy recognize how seldom "You gave yourself up, how often instead/ Had to borrow back what had already been lent." What looked as if it were the Buddha-like detachment of the person who has achieved peace in the world was in fact the withholding of a person anxious about retaining depleted resources. Whatever failure this may be for the person, it is also a failure of the art. For as McClatchy recognizes in Hazmat, the poet cannot keep such accounting. Only by surrendering oneself to the demands of language and thought, by giving oneself up and to the occasion, by taking the risk of blowing the house on a single crapshoot of creation, is the mas terpiece brought into existence.
(As the son of a stockbroker, Merrill kept close tabs on his investments, willing to sell short if the market became bearish. Perhaps that is why the last books of The Changing Light at Sandover  are unreadable. One senses that Merrill's humor- the juice of a comic epic--gave out midway through the poem and he refused to spend what was necessary on the rest of the project.)
What concerns McClatchy even more than the fate of the poet is the success of the lover. What must we give to those we love? What can we afford to withhold? From the first poem, McClatchy is at pains to show that what we must give up is exactly what we fear is unworthy of being given. In "Fado," the opening poems of Hazmat, McClatchy stretches out his heart as an offering to his lover. "It's yours, it's yours--this gift,/ This grievance embedded in each." McClatchy's heart is "the blackened/ Hypocrite" he doesn't want his lover to see, but exactly what he must see to know McClatchy and to love him.
McClatchy explores in Hazmat one of the great paradoxes of love and faith. That which is abject in ourselves--our hypocrisy, our sense of grievance--we secretly are proud of and believe to be necessary for our survival. We keep it from others not just because it may be an object of shame, but because it gives us a pleasure we are afraid to share with others. McClatchy confronts this paradox explicitly in "Feces." The poem begins as a string of sophisticated bathroom jokes, but it ends with a narrative as perverse as it is chilling, suggesting that if our shit is a symbol of sin and corruptions, it is also form of health and "riches." As a child, McClatchy went through a phase of preserving his feces, wrapping them up and saving them "in an attic/ closet stocked with unwanted lamps/ and Christmas ornaments." Indeed this closet is a sort of castaway shrine which held "chipped/ Old Father Times/ and Madonnas." His collection is, of course, eventually discovered, followed by "punishment, and worried looks." But t here is nothing either evil or pathological about a nine-year-old wanting to discover "what I had/ been, what had been/ through me, in me, nearer my self! than I could ever be." The poem concludes with his mother "Already [knowing] what/ I would become." It is a wonderfully ambiguous line. Has the mother come to understand that McClatchy was a rather queer child? Would end up with part of himself in the closet? Would be anal retentive, and unwilling to give himself away? Or did she discover what is true of us all--that in the end we are all waste, compost to feed the earth, a sacrifice to Father Time if not to the Madonna?
Hazmat plays repeatedly with the notion of potlatch, the form of gift-giving studied by Marcel Mauss among the Pacific Islanders. For these people, gifts are not possessions to be collected, amassed, retained, but rather sacred objects whose value lies in their being given away, circulated. In some way the poem is not the poet's possession to horde. It is made from language he was given and for which he or she is merely a conduit. The great poems have no copyright; they exist as gifts that are valuable only as they are kept in circulation. The poet who would horde his works, hold them back afraid of diminishment, is a person already stunted with fear and greed. By retaining what should be passed on, we turn our gifts into hazardous materials.
"Largesse" is the poem that most directly addresses the need to pass on, to give away freely the gifts that he possesses. Like Merrill, McClatchy was born into wealth, and the rich--I assume, having never been rich--must worry that they are liked only for their money. (McClatchy, in one of his clever asides in "Feces," connects his anal retentiveness to his training as a capitalist-in-the-making.) But largesse does not come easily to anyone. It is an act of grace--an act of giving without any thought of return. In this age of meanness of spirit, in corporations as well as in government, McClatchy's words deserve to be circulated widely. "Largesse" concludes:
The problem then is how to give away The gift. A charity provoked By guilt is straw in the fire compassion avows. I am meant to offer with no display The what-I-am instead of the what-I-have, All of it, the manic and mean, And then to stand aside the better to mull On blowsy Fortune nodding off Behind the wheel of her gilded, greased machine, And Mary Magdalene holding her skull
With this book McClatchy has given to American poetry works that should be passed from hand to hand, words that deserve to be given away like love.
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|Publication:||The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2002|
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