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If You Can Tell: Poems. By James McMichael. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2016. Pp.96. ISBN: 978-0374175184. $14.56. Since 1980, we’ve heard from the poet James McMichael about once a decade. Four Good Things (1980) was followed by Each in a Place Apart (1994), Capacity (2006), and now, If You Can Tell. This may seem like small output, but the scope and vision of these books, both in subject and method, helps explain why Robert Pinsky has called McMichael ‘‘one of the most innovative and experimental of contemporary poets’’. The eye reading McMichael’s poems aloud, as they ask to be read, is challenged by the limits of what the ear can take in, a phenomenon that embodies a persistent theme: How invisible forces—whether historical, geological, political, cognitive, or, in the case of the new book, (possibly) spiritual—inspire and cast limits on a human’s knowledge and agency. That the human in question is usually McMichael himself is underscored by the new book’s cover: a portrait of the author as a young child, flanked by two people whose dress indicates they’re his parents. Decades ago, the book-length poem Four Good Things examined this theme through the central event of McMichael’s youth, the death of his mother, in sometimes pages-long strophes of narrative free verse that, at times, morphed into pentameter . The lines unfold patiently, as they enact a particular method of coping with loss. To understand the context of his mother’s death, McMichael describes family history alongside the history of Pasadena (where he grew up), the settlement of the Western United States, and how land use and industrialization in precolonial England shaped the destinies of those who’d eventually flee to the new world. In one passage, McMichael explains how people who moved to California because commerce and infrastructure and culture led them there: Their sense of where they lived depended strangely on their fitness to change, as if they couldn’t know without those changes where they were or what they wanted in their lives. Living here was too much what they’d thought it would be. The sequence of perfect days were unavoidably what they’d come for. McMichael’s mother’s death happened—in the time and place it happened—because his ancestors arrived here, unavoidably. Though history is, after the fact, inevitable, its explanatory power is limited: ‘‘With my conception, I was virtually/coincident with cancer in my mother’s body.’’ How is this unfortunate intersection of events explained by land enclosure or the settlement of a California city, except to perhaps explain its location? We get a moving work of art out of that question. But answers, not so much. Nor do we get answers in McMichael’s new book, either. If You Can Tell contains a collection of remarkable poems that ask how far the answers we’ve been Book Reviews 563 given will take us. Among other things (and it’s important to note the limitations of this review’s angle; anything I say about the book conceals much of the dynamism and power it contains), this book is about two particular, ‘‘invisible’’ forces: Hearing and death—specifically the hearing of the ‘‘good news’’ of the Christian gospel and how to understand it in the face of the ‘‘oblivion death promises.’’ Hearing is a matter of the heart, invisible to any witness but God, while death comes to us mysteriously, intractably. Carried over from McMichael’s previous book, Capacity, is the form, comprising stanzas of one-, two-, three-, four-, and five lines. The form amounts to a turning away from the narrative voice of Four Good Things and Each in a Place Apart toward a lyric voice—closer in form to the lyric poems McMichael began his career writing. In a 2010 interview for Agni, McMichael described the form thusly: ‘‘No one of the five stanzas is repeated until each of the other four appears. The form’s like Schoenberg’s 12-tone system, in which no one note recurs until all the others have been heard from.’’ Recurring in the new book is that last phrase, ‘‘heard from,’’ or...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2056-5666
Print ISSN
0148-3331
Pages
pp. 563-567
Launched on MUSE
2020-01-28
Open Access
No
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