First impressions aren’t always the most important impressions. I’ve walked away from a book or a song with moderate appreciation for it, only to end up adoring it after another visit or two. “That wasn’t bad” becomes “That was really effing good!” This is the case with John McKernan’s poetry, at least for me. After going through a long backlog of review copies and the rapid passage of time in this pinball-game drama of life, I finally arrived at McKernan’s Resurrection of the Dust and stood at its front cover, hesitating to go in. The author had sent it to me quite a while ago, and, since the book had already been out for a few years before I received it, I wasn’t sure if the author had since moved on from this work (which I, as a master repudiator, can relate to). Would he even remember sending the book to me?
However, the delay in reading wasn’t intentional or accidental; it was circumstantial. But I wanted to fulfill my word to consider doing a review of the book. First of all, the title called to me. It rang like Faulkner (Intruder in the Dust), Hurston (Dust Tracks on a Road) or Kansas’ haunting “Dust in the Wind” song, and, of course, the phrase that follows the Book of Common Prayer’s famous “ashes to ashes.”
I opened the front cover and crept in. The table of contents revealed a list of 223 poem titles, in alphabetical order. (This made my latest poetry collection of 191 pages seem less obese.) Thankfully, the poem titles welcomed me right away, for I’m a sucker and stickler for cool titles. Hell, titles are half the poem. McKernan’s range from a single word to Dali-painting-title-long-and-weird. And many of them allude to or point very loudly at death: “Be Soul & Die Sex,” “The Corpse Gives Itself Away,” “Your Corpse Wants Your Body,” “Death’s Rummage Sale…,” “My Last Breath,” “My Father Returns From His Grave,” “My Ode to Death,” “The Shadow Beneath my Corpse is Always” and “Your Skull,” to name several. How could I, one who obsesses about mortality ad nauseam, resist?
Resurrection of the Dust doesn’t break any new ground as far as subject matter goes: the past as present, death, Daddy issues, place of origin (Omaha, Nebraska, in this case), momentary impressions. But what matters most is how these familiar things are perceived and poetized. These poems are chock-full of enviably great lines that are right on though they’re not up against a standard. McKernan has perfect pitch: a lot of his phraseology seems as if it couldn’t be otherwise; the way he writes a particular image or observation or feeling is the exact way it should have been written. And these golden lines know they’re good.
Despite more than a few jumbled “Surrealist” pieces and passages that amount to not much more than strung-together words and images (I’m snobbish when it comes to such experimentation), McKernan’s deft wit and svelte cleverness usually pump out worthy gold, such as “the endless violence of the prism,” “[t]he word autopsy/sounds like a switchblade clicking/open in the dark,” and “[s]creaming my name in Braille.” Cancer is “pink cancer,” a spade opens the earth “into a soft coffin of air,” “a sun-rinsed cloud” is “speechless,” Death observes a distant galaxy “[t]hrough his microscope,” “a red light can paint the sidewalk pink/Or give a face the look of fresh sunburn.” Then there’s one of the ultimate questions we never think to ask: “How much does a comma weigh?”
So, yet more poems about the past within the Now, mortality, childhood memories and Daddy can be experienced anew, with a curiosity and wonder akin to discovering a new wall of ancient cave drawings or an unknown species of bird, thanks to such golden lines.
Needless to say, McKernan’s metaphorizing is quite impressive, as shown in “After Light” (one of several pieces in which the title doubles as the opening line):
The sleepy village
It rounded up all the shadows
From every graveyard
& lynched them
And in “Omaha Nebraska”:
You are the toy store
I can’t enter…
You are the candy shop
I am forever banished from…
In the midst of seriousness, there are a lot of humorous and inventive phrases. (Someone call James Lipton and tell him to add “gymnasium of wolves” to the next edition of An Exaltation of Larks, please.) In “Much of the Packing Material”:
This darkness must have gone to Yale
To learn how to act It knows how
To impersonate the silence of my coffin
Also, McKernan’s stuff tends to be Imagistic, a style that I once disliked but has wooed me over the years, thanks to finding it in very capable hands. Some favorite examples: “The silence was bumpy like a teaspoonful of white rice,” “[f]ive ice cubes clinked/In a dark room,” “[y]esterday runs screaming down the hillside/waving a butcher knife” and
Hard hands Firm jaw The neat hair Crisp shirt
White suit Sharp tie Talking to a small boy
Lying on a blanket On the sloped green lawn…
From “Catalog of New Lanterns”:
The grave digger’s bright spade Greased Tilted
Your eyes Your green eyes
Pewter cup of the subway veteran
Plinking with silver Bright dimes…
And in “Red Wagon” (which appears after “Red Cloud” and “Red Snow”):
The voices of the people when you listened
to them all together sounded like wet cement…
The rain which had stopped an hour ago began
again & plinked against the metal of the red wagon
McKernan had to have been winking at William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow” while writing this poem. If the passage above doesn’t bring the Williams piece to mind, I suggest enrolling yourself in Being Aware On Earth 101. Mercifully the pertinent passage from that too-famous poem follows:
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
I tend to prefer the how to the what in art, particularly in poetry, but Resurrection of the Dust has the unsavory subject of death at its nucleus, so I’m morbidly delighted by the book’s what as much as I am by its how. First of all, all art is partly about death, vibrates with death, spotlights death. When I experience the art of a dead person, “He [or she] is dead” is always at the back of my mind. When I experience the art of a living person, “She [or he] will die” is always at the back of my mind. There are both ephemerality and eternity in art, just as there is a skull behind Garbo’s timeless face. I’m offended and bored by art that never faces death, never dares to hold and contemplate the pitiful skull as did Hamlet. This is why I’ve an especial appreciation for McKernan’s work. He keeps death around – because death is always around. It’s as with us as life is.
Every day I’m anxious daily over the anticipation that someday I’ll be a corpse. You, reader, will be a corpse. Those eyes you’re reading with will surely decay. (“Quintessence of dust” indeed, dear Hamlet.) In one poem “Sister Death” is mentioned: an almost certain clue that McKernan knows Faulkner (that greatest American Tragedian with death in his ink), particularly The Sound and the Fury and Quentin Compson’s narrative.
The primary symbol of mortality in the book is the narrator’s father, who died when his son was only sixteen years old. In one poem the father visits from beyond the black velvet, “[c]omplaining/About the leaky coffin.” “It’s so silent down here,” the dead man says. He can’t sleep without the sounds of a broken clock and a creaky stair.
The father is a spiritually massive presence even in death, for there’s mountain-like substance in the left-behind vacuity of the (dear or dreaded) deceased. He used to always sit in a leather chair, and after his death the chair and its emptiness frighten the son. In “The Son” a dream of his father in a coffin recurs nightly, and he can only look at the coffin’s shadow, not the coffin itself. Though sources of foreboding, the conflated chair and coffin call to the son, inviting him to plunge into death’s darkness, to take the place of the lost patriarch. After all, in “I Look Hard At the Photo on the Wall,” the narrator admits that he’s “always wanted to become my father.” What better way to explore this notion than in a poem called “The Son?”
…I touch the shadow
It is substance I can lift it
It feels like cotton I fold it as a napkin
& put it in my pocket…
Then the son borrows an air pump and inflates the shadow until it fills the room. In his waking hours the boy associates the shadow of the empty leather chair with the coffin’s shadow in the dream and wills a new dream into occurring. He deflates the coffin shadow, cuts it into the shape of a boy with his mother’s scissors and somehow uses the shadows cast by the coffin and chair to exorcize the foreboding and identify symbolically with the father in a bizarre form of resurrection or reincarnation.
…I have entered the darkness
Of Death I make a new boy
My fear floats away like dreams…
I sit in my father’s chair I rock
I am the son of my father at last…
The fearful shadow also stars in “The Shadow Beneath My Corpse Is Always” (a title that’s completed by the poem’s opening line: “In training”). As someone who is ambivalent about mortality, swinging from hopeless belief in the finality of the grave and the hope of a benign Hereafter, I appreciate fantasies about the death of Death. (I’ve written my share.) There’s a noble but pitiful superhero quality about our desires to rescue or redeem our loved ones from Death’s bowels.
…[The shadow] loves pretending he is
A layer of skin Peeled from Death’s moon-burnt
Shoulders Tonight he is resting under
Me As I write these words…
He does not know
That I am sharpening the tip of each syllable
To impale him Him & his little brother Fear
On the other hand, the narrator, ever aware of his guaranteed future state as a corpse, imagines his last breath “floating somewhere”:
Perhaps it is moving
Over an orange grove
You are Last Breath I know
Nothing about you
Except your taste You
Taste like forty acres
The reader has reason to fear as well, for there’s not a soul alive that won’t be dead someday. So much of what we do doubles as a denial of impending demise and our flesh becoming a future feast for microorganisms: whether it’s artistic creation, destructive war, building massive edifices or losing ourselves in the tiny eternity of sexual abandon. Sex, however, isn’t a sure-fire way to deny or diminish death. That’s why it’s a cliché to say that sex and death go hand in hand. As far as I’m concerned, sexual ecstasy is both a revolt against and reckless resignation to the idea of death and putrescence. (As I’ve written before, “the lifeful squish and smells effigize death’s pus and gas.”) After all, doesn’t all sex culminate in a “little death,” at least for males? In “Intricate Interior Laughter When We Worked” sex and death swirl together indeed:
At that mortuary on Dodge Street in Omaha
Of course we had sex inside caskets
With our girlfriends It was best
When we could close the lids
But that was risky What were we doing?
Were we proving our bodies weren’t dead[?]
Screwing in coffins pretty much sums up the weird games we play daily in the face of oblivion. The game compromises even our compassion for the unfortunates who go into that oblivion before us. Though news of others’ deaths always accents our own eventual ones (we’re privately relieved that we live to see another morning), McKernan goes further and reminds readers point-blank in “Your Corpse Wants Your Body”:
It wants your legs for crutches
Your hands for garden gates
Every furrow of your smile
Each dab of starlight hiding
Between the lattice of your eyelashes…
…It wants all of you that’s
Ever been & it wants too forever My Dear
And in “Your Skull”:
All the words
You will never hear
Float elsewhere now
Anchored in dirt…
Even Heaven is no real solace because the narrator predicts that there “[y]ou’ll be emptied of language.” All this clever verbosity, magnificent metaphors, slick similes and inventive phrasings to record and analyze a brief life – then eternal inarticulation for an eternal eternity?
Another recurring motif in the book is the sundial. I’m reminded of the age-old tradition of the so-called sundial mottoes, which are aphoristic sayings, usually negative and about fleeting time, etched into the stone, steel, brass or bronze of the ancient timekeepers. You may recognize “Time and tide wait for no man” or “Snatch the present hour, fear the last.” More interesting is the frequent appearance of the word “shadow” in the mottoes: “Time passes as a shadow,” “By the shadow shall I mark time” and “I am a shadow, so art thou; I mark the time, dost thou?” I don’t know if McKernan had these in mind, but this is the glorious natural context of poetry and art in general.
Shadows mark time, but we must remember that light surrounds them. In “Where Are You?” the narrator nightswims in vast Lake Erie and skims the lake’s bottom, among the algae and underwater creatures, looking up to spot distant airplane and even more distant satellite lights: “People drown themselves now & then/But I follow the lights.” As Lady Gaga said in a 2011 Google interview, “if you don’t have any shadows, you’re not standing in the light.” Though McKernan walks among the tombs and peeks into mortuaries, the beauty of his poetry and the persistence of his memory are celebratory rather than all dirge. This is the secret of the death-dwelling artist, who sees the skull behind everything with the acuity of the live-as-if-already-dead samurai. (I know, because I am one.) We may say “So far gone am I in the dark side of the earth, that its other side, the theoretic bright one, seems but uncertain twilight to me” along with Melville’s Captain Ahab in moments of confusion and despair, when graveyard worms seem to be the only survivors, but our poetry, while being partly about death also is about life, is life.
Remember, the book is called Resurrection of the Dust, a decidedly death-defying title. I can’t say that I found any stated defiance of death by McKernan, and, similar to Faulkner, the work has a somewhat grim vibe, or the feeling Sophocles leaves behind. John McKernan will die someday; he might even be dead by the time you read this. Who knows? He certainly hasn’t voiced any dramatic hopes against that materialist fact, but, regardless his – and Faulkner’s and Sophocles’s! – private eschatology, I insist that the art itself does the exaltation. This is part of the reason I adore Ingmar Bergman films: his lowest and most traumatic moments can’t dampen the thrill and wonder with which his art fills me. There is glorious music in The Silence. In spite of my natural pessimism and my attunement to John Donne more than, say, Norman Vincent Peale, I’m compelled to balance out Franz Kafka with Frank Capra, because of either genuine faith or desperate denial: it depends on the day.
Earlier I mentioned that it brought my mind to similarly ringing titles such as Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust. Well, there is an intruder in the dust: it’s life. And it’s here, for the time being. It’s here for the being.
Another fine writer, G.K. Chesterton, wrote in “The Praise of Dust”:
“What of vile dust?” the preacher said.
Methought the whole world woke,
The dead stone lived beneath my foot,
And my whole body spoke.