Sally Buckner   •  October 25, 2002

All of the Blessings About Us

A Review of Rebecca McClanahan’s Naked As Eve

Naked As Eve, by Rebecca McClanahan. Copper Beech Press, 2000.
63 pgs., $11.00 (paper) ISBN: 0-914278-78-9

Reviewing a number of poetry journals recently, I decided I could probably divide the poems into three piles, the first two containing work which irritates me immensely. Let me describe them and give samples. (To protect the guilty, I have changed some words, but kept the form and the sense of each.)

1. “Someone asked about the atmosphere of sadness
And dismay that is built into these poems,
About the personal events those feelings might conceal,
And how they relate to my life.”

An interesting thought, but this excerpt—and most of the remainder of this poem—is prose masquerading as poetry. No imaginative language, no images, little attention to rhythm or word music. Why not just publish it as an essay?

2. “Reaching for the sugar:
a) he is slapped by the mother
b) he is slapped by the mother’s dishrag
c) he is slapped by the mother’s mother
d) hello. he is inside.”

This cutesy effort goes on for 16 stanzas, all similarly structured, none making any more sense than these five lines. Comprised of seemingly random phrases with no apparent connections, such writing confounds coherence, snubs its nose at sense—and at the reader.

Those are the two opposite ends of the current poetic spectrum. But then, thank goodness, there’s the third pile. Poetry. I think it was W. H. Auden who said that poetry is “memorable language.” Do you think you’ll remember the previous examples beyond this evening, much less years from now?

On the other hand, try this: “Here in this retirement village the earth / takes its sweet time spinning.” Don’t those two lines capture several aspects of life in a retirement village? Don’t they reverberate, in both sound and meaning? The poem goes on to describe one elderly resident, who “lived out his days, / his body light in my friend’s arms, bones hollow / and angled as wings.” Can’t you see him, feel his fragility?

These lines are from “The Round Earth’s Imagined Corners,” one of the poems in Rebecca McClanahan’s new collection, Naked As Eve. Turn back a few pages and you’ll find, “My Father’s Cadillac.” Here McClanahan describes the father who dreamed of a Cadillac, but “kept denying himself / for the line of boxy sedans / and station wagons solid enough / to hold six children, who soon dispersed / to the convoy of used Bugs and Beetles / filling our driveway like an army / of hard-shelled insects, each haggled / at a discount from some widow or retiree, / each housing in its driver’s seat / a teenager whose only desire was to peel away, a father’s love / bright as headlights in our eyes.”

Now these lines are poetry. They lift commonplace experiences out of the daily smog and make them shine, so that we see them anew, maybe see the deepest truth in them for the first time.

McClanahan has been accomplishing this little miracle through three well-received collections now. This may be the strongest of them all. Her poems often deal with small moments, tiny details. Novelist Gail Godwin often writes and speaks—passionately—about the need for human beings to pay attention, quoting Henry James: “Be one of those on whom nothing is lost.” Godwin and James would be pleased with McClanahan, for her attention is both broad and deep. For example, “Husband at Six O’Clock”: The weight of his return /registers. The front gate / clanks, the lock clicks. / Of course it is raining. / He wears overshoes / and his father’s dazed face.” (With these details, and the words weight and dazed, we need not be told that the husband has not had a nice day.)

In contrast, “There Are Days” describes one of those times when, without the impetus of some remarkable event, we are suddenly aware of the blessings about us. “…you find yourself writing to your sister-in-law / to thank her for the lemon cake / she baked that time, and for loving / your brother all these years.” She goes on to cite the ability to function without tubes and machines, the pleasure of tasting the salt in our own well-earned sweat—happy circumstances which we seldom even notice, much less recognize with gratitude.

Frequently McClanahan focuses on the meanings of words. “Out of Context” thinks of words that have been crucial to a marriage:

…Do you? / The cat. Mortgage. / Love, let’s lift / the words from our tongues / before they land / in the breakfast cereal, / the sink, on the rake’s / waiting handle. … / …Or scissor them / from their stories the way / kidnappers ransom / small words innocent in and of themselves— if love money now — / spelling the end / of life as someone / once knew it.…”

“Making Love” begins “Why make? I used to wonder. / Is it something you have to keep on / making, like beds or dinner, stir it up / or smooth it down?” She imagines “It could be the name of a faraway / city, end of a tired journey you take / with some husband, your bodies chugging / their way up the mountain, glimpsing / the city lights and thinking, If we can / keep it up, we’ll make Love by morning.” The poem is a serious exploration of lovemaking, but touches of humor make it lilt.

Another poem muses on the fact that pathology and poetry share the same root. Still another examines “The Invention of Zero,” with little blanks in the middle of lines signifying absence: “All along we knew something  was missing  We had no idea / it was nothing  we knew only that we lacked /  a place to place  the sum of our subtractions.” Another, “Invocation” provides six examples of persons—all very different and in very different situations—crying out in extremity. It ends, sadly: “My dying aunt called simply, Somebody / and a janitor sweeping the corridor / outside her room answered.”

McClanahan has a gift for narrative. A number of the poems are pure narrative; all include what Stephen Minot has called “narrative tension”—implied story. “Teaching a Nephew To Type,” a charming tale, goes beyond anecdote to play with double significances of punctuation marks. The thirty-two lines of “Fourteen” could be expanded into a short story dealing with initiation.

I’ve just provided tantalizing samples, but surely you can tell that this is poetry, pure and fine. This poet can be intriguing without being obscure, witty without being cute, accessible without being obvious. Reading these works, one won’t be surprised to learn that McClanahan’s poetry has won numerous awards. So have her fiction and essays. Although she’s a native of Indiana and since 1998 has lived in New York City, North Carolina has some claim to Rebecca McClanahan, since she was Coordinator of the Poets-in-the-Schools program from Charlotte/Mecklenburg Schools for over a dozen years. We’re proud to make that claim.