Review of Teddy Macker, This World (White Cloud Press, 2015), reviewed by William Jolliff
Teddy Macker's This World makes a strong first impression. The book design is immediately engaging, with an inviting elegance a notch above much small press work. Its most compelling feature, though, is the back cover: it offers a laudatory endorsement by David James Duncan. So the collection has a good bit of curb appeal to live up to. As often as not, the poems hold their own.
The contents are split fairly evenly between traditional free verse and prose poems. Critical attention to the stylistic choices reveals a technique that certainly does not dazzle and that only seldom offers much gratification of its own. That said, the craft is never off in ways that dim what the poems have to offer. Essentially, the style is transparent: Macker has found functional ways to make art with observations of his world, and those observations themselves are the work's focus. He describes, it would seem, his own method in "Poet":
Like a small bird, a finch,
who pecks at a persimmon
hanging on a branch,
pecks her way inside
the large lush fruit,
Nothing is remarkable about the bird, save the world in which this particular finch as poet suddenly finds itself, and its dedicated pecking away at it.
Most immediately compelling about Macker's writing is the close observation of natural detail. Describing a dead doe along the highway in "Sycamore Canyon," he writes of how "the fur on her neck would rise in the wind" of passing cars, of how her eyes were "dry and cracked; they looked like the skin / of baked apples," and of how, since the deer had defecated on being struck, "windblown pebbles stuck to the shit." These are observations of someone who not only demonstrates an eye for detail but who has taken the time to observe the carcass. Such keen attention to the real buys the poet a credibility that in turn makes his metaphorical leaps more immediately believable. So when he later states that he "reached down and picked up a front leg" and in doing so "could feel the clarity of her old running," it never occurs to us to doubt him. We experience that animal's death and life along with our trusted guide.
Though close observation of nature with a resulting figurative turn is Macker's most frequently visited topos, it is not the only one. He also does several translations of, or versions of, or loose riffing on, the lyrics of elder poets. At its best, his work in this vein recalls the tradition of Snyder or Pound. He draws with good results on poets as widely varied as Petronius and Ts'ao Sung, and possibly most engagingly, on a handful of ancient Sanskrit poets. From the latter he develops this compelling imagery in "Bellybutton":
The young girl sees her bellybutton deepen,
along her breasts
where the skin
has stretched. . . .
she tortures her waist with twine,
accenting the hourglass shape.
There is, it seems to me, a tender and eternally contemporary sadness in those lines, an insight that collapses the distances of time and feeling.
And that insight leads us into a third topos Macker frequents: his place as a father. This ideational strain recurs throughout, but most noticeably in the book's longest poem, the ten-part "A Poem for My Daughter." Any poet who has been pulled toward using his craft to grasp the depth of parental love, and inevitably failing, will find in Macker a fellow sufferer and, more positively, an example of an artist who edges closely toward truth. "God comes to you disguised as your life," he writes to his "dear Ellie," and "blessings often arrive as trouble." I doubt that anyone has ever found just the right way to say that to a child, but we learn from Macker's struggle that from such common failure one may make uncommonly wise art.
In fact one fruitful way Macker may be understood is in the context of wisdom literature; several poems fit easily into that category. "War Map" is his take on the realities of military cant: "Don't talk to me about the cause," the poet writes. "Don't mention sacrifice, ideals, all that slop. // Your good general leaves in victory, / ten thousand corpses behind." And in "Storm on Galilee" he alludes insightfully to Jesus with this interpretive paraphrase: "Faith . . . / is not trusting things will one day be better. / Faith is trusting things could never be better. No matter what." But maybe most memorable is "The Mosquito Among the Raindrops." The insect gets hit, Macker tells us, by a force equivalent to "a falling school bus . . . every twenty seconds" and lives. Our question, and Macker's, is "How does she do it?" And his answer: "She becomes 'one with the drop,' / knowing that to fly again / she must fall."
In reading the poems of This World, we have the sense of spending time with a good man who has himself been clobbered by a bus or two, and who has accepted his battering with a deep and contemplative endurance. And that's what makes this poet such a good companion. If the poems lack the technical surprises one might hope for in a collection of new poems, they more than compensate by being infinitely companionable. It's well worth anyone's time to spend a few hours sharing Teddy Macker's world in his work.
William Jolliff serves as Professor of English at George Fox University. His poetry and criticism have appeared in West Branch, Renascence, Southern Poetry Review, Midwest Quarterly, and other journals. His newest poetry collection is Twisted Shapes of Light (Cascade-Poiema, 2015)
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