Duties of an English Foreign Secretary by Macgregor Card
(Fence Books, Albany, N.Y., 2009)
This collection won a competition: as the cover declares, it’s the “winner of the 2009 Fence Modern Poets Series,” selected by Martin Corless-Smith. Previous winners in the series include Christopher Janke, Geraldine Kim, Prageeta Sharma, and Joyelle McSweeney.
Corless-Smith characterizes Card’s work as relentlessly yet rewardingly playful, and I think that can be helpful in determining whether to borrow or buy this book: it will likely exasperate you if you prefer straightforward narrative or consistent form (and sometimes that’s exactly what I want), or if you’ve devoted too much of your day already to the natterings of the childish or self-absorbed or maddeningly rambley (and sometimes, I have). Billy Collins it is not, and neither is it Dickinson. But, its range is broad: the opening poem, “Poem,” consists of a two-line gut-punch that reads like a scrap from an Anglo-Saxon chronicle; then there are multi-page monologues such as the title poem, “I am the Teacher of Athletes,” “To Friend-Tree of the Counted Days,” and “Afternoon of a Foreigner,” where one might well expect some “Hey nonny nonny”s to hop in just for the happy hell of it. (And, indeed, in “Nary a Soul,” there are the likes of both “No could NO could could could”s and “If I could nary, nary, nary, nary, nary”.) You could say that this book is the equivalent of hanging out with a smart, well-read, talkative friend for hours on end, through multiple moods -- some maudlin, some curt, and some expansively lyrical and at times profound.
In the list of “Notes / Sources” that follows the poems, the author states that Duties “is a companion volume to Karen Weiser’s To Light Out (NY: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010). Most poems have several lines or phrases in common, drawn from weekly collaborations, 2001–2008). It is tempting to suggest that the collaborative origin of these poems underpins the sense (not fully borne out in rereading them) that they are all poems of witness and testimony, their speakers all intent on saying what they have to say, not -- that they spring from the speaker having someone at last to say these things to, whether they be worth the saying or not. (There are a number of poems that failed to convince me they belonged in the collection; were they jottings on a random cocktail napkin, I’d bin them without a second glance.)
The poems that do succeed remind me somewhat of Alan Dugan, both in terms of style and sensibility -- there’s a balance of candor, pessimism, and nostalgia that somehow stops short of being repellently pathetic or belligerent. You wouldn’t linger at the bar if some drunk dude clutched your arm and insisted on iterating all his failures to you -- presumably in hopes of eliciting sympathy or assistance -- but it’s different when a potentially well-crafted poem crosses your path. Among other things, it asks for nothing more than the time it takes to read it: one might choose to spend more time with it, due to connections or conclusions drawn in the course of reading it, but that would be the difference between sidling over to someone who’s bought you a drink and someone thinking they’ve bought you in plunking themselves and said drink right next to you.
The first three lines of the poem on page 41 (“Poem”) is as plain-spoken as modern poetry gets, and yet it moves me:
I was often late, frequently lazy, not able
to tear a rent in space, though I won
a race, maybe two, I had nothing else to do
And so does the poem on page 75 in its entirety, which inhabits the same level of vocabulary, but seems (at least on first read) to be a world apart in sensibility:
I lift my eyes to the visible tree,
not easy, in view of its quiet leaves
They are showy mirrors
and the morning is without wind
The poems run from page 15 to 105. This gives Card room to display his technical range. While I was underwhelmed by some of his word choices in the (to me) throwaway poems, I was at least never in doubt that his line breaks were deliberate and thoughtfully calibrated. The short lines of “The Sleeping Monk of Innisfallen” accent its spare beauty--
I feel more
than I am
Light cuts a shape
from the crowd
a shape that
is not me
--whereas the uneven, dubiously coherent lines in the title poem suit its ebb and flow of near-hysteria:
I found myself in a wood of chairs
The birds were thin as wires
When information fails, light falls
The office clock to airy thinness beat. . .
I want to walk a line
I want to play my dove
in a magic show about John Donne
but everybody does
Not everybody will find what they want here, and not in every poem, but some of the poems carry within them universality enough. The lavender-shod donkey and “the power of bear knowledge,” I confess those lost me, but then I read “Fear and Trembling and the Sickness unto Death,” which contains a lament I’ve heard on the lips of multiple rabbis and other theists:
Although a hammer is not sick for faith
Why did Abraham do it …?
Peg Duthie shares a house in Nashville with a tall man, a large dog, and a short piano. She blogs about poetry at Vary the Line and tweets about it now and then (@zirconium).