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"The Tessellate Mirror of the Sea" May 22, 2008
Robert McNamara's The Body & the Day is the first collection from this poet since Second Messengers (1990), but don't confuse this sparse output with parsimony. McNamara's output speaks to the care and cultivation of a Muse whose reward is every bit as in league with beauty as her recalcitrance is with its indifference to authorial impatience. If you like poetry for its ability to attend to subjects with the literary equivalent of caritas, as opposed to its directing words from an Olympic podium, then McNamara's poetry is something you have been looking for, though you may not have known it. Ever since late Heidegger became a guru of "poetic thinking," it has become fashionable for poets who have insufficiently grasped this idea to feature process as itself a specimen of poetic thought. But if you really want to see what it's like to observe the mind of another making its way through a world it creates by what it is moved by, read the title section of this book. It takes as its subject the ordinary given in its quotidian complexity: domesticity, marriage, vacations, the natural world, reading, the past. The mind goes backward in time as the body moves forward in space: the memory of the opening of "Like a Rolling Stone" leads to a bird singing in the present, and that fleet--but inadequate--song leads again to the past, where another singer, the young Milosz--a more promising model--arrives. McNamara imbues each poem in The Body & the Day with a similar angularity ("Going left, we missed the stream, drink,/the shivering breeze along the plush banks./ Right, the sun-soaked peak . . ."--"A Path in the Mountain"). These turning and recursive gestures all plot a single movement because they comprise a moment, and then, a series of moments. A moment, for this student of Pound (ironically, the Godfather of process), is comprised of contingent features seemingly at odds. Yet the net effect is that such features in the poet's hands delight and reassure us that living is not merely a matter of slogging our way through a jungle of incommensurable and incompatible things: these moments are demonstrations, even enactments, of coherence:
The gray world flowers again Around our slowing steps, and wandering-- Nearly all that we could want. ("A Path in the Mountains")
So we find ourselves present at an old debate: do things hang together, or do they not? Since modernity, it has been harder for poets to maintain the former without seeming to resort to special pleading in which to say so is to seem to declare a lyric victory at the expense of reality. Or the opposite: to fall all too easily into affirmations made possible by the slippage of belief into spirituality--or recourse to a vanishing prestige that made the bard a necessity for ensuring cultural intelligibility. McNamara takes a different route replacing transcendental commitments with the endless to-ing and fro-ing of the here-and-now. In poetry, craft and form are the images of coherence, but coherence is not the end of discourse, just as balance is not the same as perfection. McNamara's poems differ from poems that relish their own process in showing a preference for finish, that is, for the next-to-last, as opposed to the ultimate, word. Consider this from "Sati, Seventh Month, by the Sea":
Sand does not surround her, though she is jar-round, any more than the sea, its cry
like footsteps in the bleached grass, drift- wood, that the child hears, turning in water toward air like orca or porpoise not quite breaching the tessellate mirror of the sea.
The "tessellate" (a word that wandered in from math) is that just-so--and yet not ultimate--descriptor, like the earlier "nearly," that prefaces "all we could want." Marshaling attention and its own synthetic powers, this collection moves at a deliberate pace and impresses with a cumulative power. Each poem is formally accomplished, the product of a poetic mind working at the full. What Martin Amis said of Saul Bellow is to the point here: this author sets himself apart from his peers because his attention penetrates the fabric of ordinary reality just slightly more deeply, but regularly so, than we are used to. The reward is how much can be derived from what is so commonly passed over: an enrichment that is also an empowerment. This is where Heidegger hooks up with Blake: the true poet never sees the end, never the poem to end all poems, but indelible markers that merit our close reading and more importantly, rereading.