I want to like John McAuliffe’s The Way In. I really do. It gets very tiresome very quickly to chant some version of ‘how can you care about X when people are starving/being bombed/being displaced/etc. in Y?’ at such collections, and a failure to write about something convincingly doesn’t mean one doesn’t care. Still, though, McAuliffe’s risk is that everyday subject matter can lead to banality, just as political themes can lead to strident preachiness or love poems to bathos. But I’ve been staring down this review for months, trying to see, per Daisy Fried in Partisan, a collection in which a ‘complicated, quizzical, lucid relationship with domesticity situates his speakers in simultaneous comfort and discomfort, in which the poems ‘mine the quotidian and rise, wittily and without an ounce of pretension, to the symbolic.’ It isn’t that Fried is wrong, exactly, or that the collection sucks. It’s more that it is profoundly unmemorable.
At one point, I learned a lot from a certain strain of Irish prosody, frequently appearing under the aegis of Gallery Press, when I was straining against the strictures of American New Formalism about a decade ago. Okay, it was mostly Derek Mahon, but Justin Quinn has his strengths, too. The key was a line that while recognizably informed by metre and rhyme, nevertheless allowed in some of the variability of free verse. It was all terribly useful, but reading this book, the weaknesses of that prosodic approach, coupled with often insipid subject matter, become apparent.
Take this stanza from “Shed,” dedicated to McAuliffe’s publisher, Gallery Press’s Peter Fallon:
it was too big to go through. We counted the nails but couldn’t:
they were like stars, more the more we looked. ‘Heave it over,’
over the garage and down, he joked,
the garden path to its resting place under the magnolia.
First off, the ‘over/magnolia’ rhyme sounds less the result of a tin ear than the deliberate choice of a guy who’s decided that a more euphonic rhyme sound would be too, you know, strident. To make matters worse, the line’s stresses mire a poem with a fairly obvious point in seeming verbal detritus–but hey, it ain’t iambic pentameter! There are times that splitting the difference between metrical and free verse can produce new, even arresting musicality, but in McAuliffe’s case, it feels more like a bid for MOR acceptability.
’Shed’ is also typical in its domestic frame of reference. It is not without shifts in attitude towards said shed, psychological complexity, and… shit like that. It is hard to object to such a poem, but it is also hard to enthuse over it. The collection feels a lot like the jazz playing on the sound system at a moderately priced, well-reviewed restaurant–reasonably and unobtrusively syncopated, with obvious chops on the part of the musicians, but I pretty always would rather listen to something else. I’ve not even talking Led Zeppelin, which would be unfair. Ratt or Quiet Riot would do instead of whatever post-Brubeck dreck is serenading my goddamn artisanal steak sandwich.
I could go on in this vein, but what would be the point? The collection has virtually no crappy parts, but establishing forgetability at length does no one any favors. The Way In hits its marks, but it’s in the same way that I managed to get dressed, feed myself, and run my errands today, even while going to work for several hours. Better than staying home, eating a bag of Fritos, and watching re-runs of Friends on Netflix for seven hours? Probably, but you don’t particularly want me to elaborate. This book feels like a clever, capable, middle-aged man getting on with his competently lived but relatively uneventful life. There’s nothing wrong with it, but did we need a book of it?
De gustibus? Sure, but that doesn’t end the conversation, because the issue with this book isn’t competency, and it isn’t a refusal to ‘take risks’–many an act of callow poetic douchebaggery has begun with a ‘risk’. In this case, though, I would posit this: if there is a risk to writing striking, memorable poetry, it is two-fold. The first risk is that the writer will fall short of the poem’s stated task. The poem, by failing to hit its targets, will suck. The second is that the poem’s tasks themselves will alienate readers, justly or unjustly. Not everyone likes long poems, political poems, poems that diss things they hold dear. The poems in this collection do no such thing. They are hard to dislike and hard to disagree with. They are the tinkling sounds of the pianist taking his solo circa. 1960 as I decide that yes, I’ll have another beer in a repurposed Mason jar. It’s hard to hate but hard to remember.
The Way In John Mcauliffe’s is published by Gallery Press
Quincy Lehr’s latest collection is The Dark Lord of The Tiki Bar