With some exceptions (which I'll talk about later), David McGimpsey's poetry debut, Lard Cake, is mostly a collection of slick, self-conscious parodies of TV clichés and pop-culture myths. Insofar as his mordant send-ups are successful, McGimpsey manages to be wry, waggish, sublimely irreverent-in short, a hoot. When he gets it right, a youthful, almost picaresque spontaneity fills his lines, and the writing takes on a refreshing eccentricity. But even spontaneity can, if abused, grow wearisome, and McGimpsey often miscalculates on the capacities and limits of his free-associational style. The very exuberance that helps to make his voice so hip and savvy can, at a turn, become highly debilitating, forcing his poems to unspool in a string of random incidents, oblique anecdotes, and gratuitous metaphors. True, as a formal conception that kind of aimlessness might accord perfectly with McGimpsey's breezy, uncalculating attitude. But does it pay its way on the page?
I suspect that he is somewhat weary of well-made poetry, or what might seem to him the ascetical task of reducing experience to rigorously "perfect" lines-a task against which his flagrant playfulness is clearly a kind of maximalist rebuke. Yet I'm not sure playfulness, no matter how liberating, is in itself sufficient. The poetry of a verbal trickster like Frank O'Hara, for example, is satisfying because it also aspires to be a true response-that is, an utterance which, with inescapable accuracy, captures something crucial, authentic, real. O'Hara's poetry isn't just experimental or arty, but is always trying to move closer to what can convincingly be said about the world. This kind of veracity is, I believe, impossible to achieve without a respect for precision, without a sense of limit or restriction, without a willingness to discriminate between what's essential and what's merely superfluous.
If we apply that criterion to the work in Lard Cake, many of the poems disappoint us utterly. The purposefulness that, on the surface, appears to animate the disarranged contents of McGimpsey's poems is really little more than hoaxing, an illusion procured by his assigning the poems to TV sitcoms and celebrities. Now I obviously don't intend to say he shouldn't choose, as a point of departure, some external subject. But I do object when, lacking a justifying premise for a poem, he exploits a famous name as an easy means of establishing a mood and begins to draw inspiration from his own improvisational method. The compositional logic of the poems-the choices of arrangement and juxtaposition, diction and rhythm-feels entirely arbitrary. And that sort of negligence allows for enormous slippage between the poetry's subject and any convincing expression of it. Read the first six stanzas of "Howard Hears Marion Downstairs" and judge for yourself:
I hear you downstairs in the morning.
Your bones are too big; drumbeating out
the sun with their yearning syncopations.
There will be another kind of birdcage for you
and another yellowed Eisenhower era for me;
I hear you downstairs making plans.
You talk out the window to the lanky
brown-haired man with crooked, gapped teeth.
You say something that in the movies
would go like this:
"just because I'm a nun
doesn't mean I can forget I'm a woman"
We quiver like chicken hinds
after the voodoo priest has bitten off the head
and its blood forms icicle drips
at the defiant mouth. We shake
like delirious hands, fumbling with a bottle
of Wild Irish Rose by the cold lakeshore.
I don't get this, and I don't think there's much here to get. The writing is embarrassingly (though perhaps stylishly) self-indulgent. The lines have no sanctioning impulse, no informing principle. Howard and Marion are the oddball parents endearingly portrayed in Happy Days, but that bit of trivia isn't enough to provide a cogent rationale for the monologue. Wallace Stevens wrote that "the poem must be the cry of its occasion," and McGimpsey's crucial weakness is his inability to persuade us of a credible occasion behind many of his poems-as in the first four stanzas of "Oprah State University: The First Valedictory Address":
This summer I will swim Lake Michigan.
Not in width or length
but I promise I'll get in it for awhile.
I had parents no better than algae
or at least no better than walleyes,
their eyes cloudy, their gills full of ash, though still
But they did tell me to go to college
and told me to keep a 9mm pistol in my desk
and I do, just to keep my inner child alive.
Now as we head out into the world
I can look an employer square and say
don't believe The Enquirer, feel good about
The writing here is somewhat more coherent, but Oprah Winfrey's affiliation with these brief, estranged comments seems contrived: a sophisticated feint aimed at keeping us distracted from the lack of real content. The lines are funny, sure, but the humour is of the nudge-and-wink variety that's meant to gain our trust by alerting us to some sort of hilarious irony. In McGimpsey's hands the whole thing comes across as jeering and smart-alecky. The poem continues for another four stanzas that seem designed to do little else except relentlessly remind the reader that the author is smart, erudite, and quick-witted. Now I don't want to misrepresent McGimpsey's inventiveness-I'd like to be fair to those moments when his poems profit from their unburdened, carefree speech-but a poem like "Oprah State University" functions mainly as a kind of passive catch-all for whatever clever phrase McGimpsey was able to muster.
I'd say that at least half of Lard Cake is given over to these constructions: poems formally organized around a series of excruciatingly artificial statements that have no credible context to enrich or support them. In the other half, where McGimpsey's poetry is motivated by something more than free association, we can glimpse a different, more substantial art. In the best of the "celebrity" poems-"Edna Loses the Store" (based on the episode of The Facts of Life where Edna Garrett's bakery, Edna's Edibles, burns down), "In Memoriam: A.H. Jr" (an elegy to Alan Hale, the skipper on Gilligan's Island), "Babe Ruth In Love", and "The Trip" (the chronicle of a road trip with Hank Williams)-McGimpsey initiates a kind of negative capability; that is, he projects himself into, and re-imagines, familiar pop-culture personalities. In "Edna Loses the Store", for example (I will quote its last eight stanzas) McGimpsey facilitates a moment of real sympathy for the television character:
This is the biggest fire they've ever seen
Peekskill seems as small as an apple
& about as dangerous to safety
there was nothing that they could really do
pretend it's the 4th of July & watch
& Edna drops & cries from the reality
how tender that olive oil looked bottled
she yells way into the Catskill mountains
"my shop! my beautiful shop! o, o girls"
she wishes it would smell of all the shop's food
gently roasting way into the wind
instead it pours acrid plastic smoke
black as hockey tape, searing her nostrils
with its caustic smell until she chokes hard
she knows it's all over & she coughs again
she knows her policy is outdated
& will not cover it more than a layer
of yellow paint or floral wallpaper
she felt the fire take some orange away
& her hair was emptied into the flames
everybody says "at least you're not hurt
thank god nobody was hurt or killed"
but maybe it would have been better Edna thinks
to join all the angels who've died in fires
One could turn curmudgeon and declare this sentimental, and I suppose the emotion might, to some, seem a little suspicious. But what for me makes this poem valuable in the collection is that it proves that McGimpsey really can yield to feeling. He has, briefly at least, done away with the wisecracks, and there is instead an honest attentiveness to the details of Edna's loss. McGimpsey works hard to get it right and I think that sincerity of purpose is part of what helps give the poem its poignancy. "The Trip", one of the book's longest poems, is probably a more interesting example of this. "The trip was supposed to be simple enough:", the poem begins, "drive Hank Williams from Knoxville TN to Canton OH,/ give him time to dry out, straighten up/ for a New Year's Eve concert the next night." The trip, of course, becomes anything but simple, as McGimpsey builds the freewheeling, sometimes uproarious monologue into a surprisingly touching meditation on friendship, loyalty, and the American Civil War:
I was to take him wherever he wished.
& Old Hank (he annoyingly referred to himself
in the third person) wanted to go on
just another ride.
He needed some shots for the pain in his back
which was real at one time, but that day
he was riding the crest of a junkie's heat,
a hot spell that eats the user like a fever
from fix to fix until, someway, it dies down.
First business in Knoxville was to see
the doctor who would oblige Ole Hank.
Instead of starting north
we tooled around the south in the white caddy.
A dusty bottle of whisky from Fort Payne AL
was soon shattered, empty on the road. Then,
we got to Chattanooga TN to see another doctor
another needle I guess he couldn't
brave himself to spike.
Picked up some chloral hydrate tablets-
something to keep him from drinking
(you kept Hank from drinking by knocking him
The mountains were grey in the snow
but still missing the Christmas magic
Dolly Parton associates with the region.
Travelling through you could never tell
throughout these fields, stench;
is left to fester on the battlefields;
gangrene, pyemia, peritonitis,
dysentery, typhoid, pneumonia, malaria
& of course just plain shot to death,
like Lincoln. Just passing through
you wouldn't know. God is silent that way.
"The Trip" isn't an unqualified success. Given the poem's length, there is a leisureliness about the way it swings from line to line that sometimes seems lazy rather than cunning, and, given its multi-faceted construction, the syntax can sometimes clog up lines with a frustrating inaccessibility. That said, I can only hope that excerpt is enough of a hint to show how McGimpsey is able to indulge his wildness of assertion and wildness of association while, in the midst of his antics, maintaining a certain degree of control, balance, and lucidity. "The Trip" works, in short, because there are counter-pressures to help subdue McGimpsey's exaggerated gestures-not self-restraint so much as his willingness to greet the subject with a tactful sense of its true proportion. The result is a poem that purveys an angst fostered by regret, nostalgia, and grief (Hank Williams eventually dies in the backseat of the Cadillac) without any loss in McGimpsey's crazy, irrepressible buoyancy.
I realize that my judgement may, to some, seem priggish, and that in my possibly starchy caution I've been squeamishly praising only the most conventional parts of Lard Cake. But in fact it isn't until the last section that McGimpsey really packages his playfulness into a system of effects that's rewarding in its allusiveness. What sets the writing apart here is its lapidary qualities. In a collection spurred by zany garrulousness, the poems move with surprising economy and efficiency. No doubt it's their compact, almost minimalist form-the poems all limit themselves to four quatrains-that provide McGimpsey with the chastening corrective. The poems aim at an elliptical conversation, one that does its work by innuendo. Yet their compression, luckily, hasn't forced McGimpsey's brisk, off-the-cuff humour into abeyance. He has retooled his improvisational technique and adapted it for the new conditions. In their diction, tone, and arrangement of detail, the poems are small miracles of comic timing:
There was no doubt about my boss:
he was one of the great defectives.
He claimed our poor profits in the recession
stemmed from his "fear of circus clowns."
You have to be careful around a guy like that:
test your breath, shoelaces Oxford-style-
one winter afternoon, about a month
after the operation on my foot,
I limped aggressively into the office
and finally told a co-worker to shutup.
My boss overheard, grabbed me and said,
"you're not the sharpest pencil in the box, are
The irony was I ended up working as a clown
in front of a flower shop right there on 6th
And the boss would walk by, smelling like Paco
and I was going shutup, shutup, shutup.
There is a nice sufficiency about this: the way the poem ("KoKo") discloses its information at just the right pace, how the dramatic situation is frugally (but persuasively) established. Throughout Lard Cake, McGimpsey's enthusiasm to drum up an "impure" scenario-something inclusive, full of odd details-has made him particularly vulnerable to the disingenuous, the inauthentic, the downright false. In this last section, the narrowing of space in the poems has been followed by a narrowing of choices. There is no room to make the sort the tangential decisions that, while spirited, might bounce the reader out of the poem. This doesn't mean that the poems are straightforward (their meaning is anything but clear), only that, through their precision, they've made their inscrutability a liveable environment for the reader's imagination. These poems convince me that McGimpsey's whimsy, properly supervised, might be enough to survive any further misstep; certainly they leave me curious to see what its future direction might be.
Carmine Starnino lives in Montreal. His collection of poems, The New World, is published by Signal Editions.