Dec '02 [Home]


J.D. McClatchy's Hazmat
(Knopf, 2002, 83 pp. $ 23)

Corrupted with Pleasure,
Punished with More

by Reese Thompson

. . .

There are times, thumbing though the pages of Hazmat, J.D. McClatchy's latest collection, that one has the sense of entering a very clean, very beautifully furnished house, in which every knick-knack is in place, every doorknob polished, and its spatial relations approved by both feng-shui guru and Ethan Allen design consultant. Other times, McClatchy has the reader tour a fetishist sex dungeon, which happens to be in the basement of a cathedral. What sets McClatchy apart from almost every other formalist poet writing today is his ability to neatly frame his uniquely untidy subject matter. His technical confidence plays counterpoint to deep psychic insecurity. In Poetry of the Physical, he opens, interestingly, with the heart, in "Fado":

Suppose my heart had broken
Out of its cage of bone.  .  .  .
Suppose then I could hold it
Out towards you, could feel
Its growling hound of blood

The insecurity of the hypothetical when addressing the lover, tentatively offering up a heart which the speaker describes as, "A jagged crown of flames," "growling hound of blood," creates tension with the poem's external design which is at once tender and penitent. The coarseness of the voice serves the visceral emotion of the fado (a plaintive Portuguese folksong). McClatchy, in this instance, is a soprano in her prime, never cracking a note. The redemption which only the "you" in the poem is able to grant, hints at a self-hating love rather than a desperate one. Here, control of form is a poor substitute for lack of control in life. McClatchy is re-enacting the drama of contrition; the "I" in the poem is practically addressing God, seeking pardon for the sin of loving another more than Him. The speaker is caught in a pattern of betrayal and shame, transgression and self-flagellation:

Suppose you could watch it burn,
Jagged crown of flames
Above the empty rooms
Where counterclaims

Of air and anger feed
The fire's quickening flush
And into whose remorse
Excuses rush.

Even in his renunciation of Catholicism, McClatchy freely exploits its drama and power.

McClatchy moves from love to carnality, imbuing both themes with the same fiercely applied pathos. His confessionalism, though steeped in the academic, nowhere resembles Lowell's rhetorical, bourgeois veneer. Instead, taking pointers from Sexton's unflinching brutality, he pulls no punches, as in "Orchid":

Now that you are gone, you are everywhere.
Take this orchid, for instance,
its swollen lip, the scrawny stalk's one
descended testicle
as wrinkled as rhetoric on the bar-scene stump,
the golden years since
jingling in its purse. How else signal the bee?

In this poem, one senses that McClatchy's version of confessionalism is rooted more in creating myth out of personal experience than in tearing pages from his diaries. He has chosen to walk the tightrope between poetry and self-absorption, between the important and the pathetic, emerging on the other side with the collective framed in the specific. His success is often precariously achieved, though it is the precarious nature of things that lends the poem its added irreverence. Nowhere is this more evident than in "Feces," McClatchy's Proustian drama of childhood, where a "streaming yam" replaces the madeleine:  "that the body most wants/ an empty tomb,// a place to fill/ with the next day, the nurturing/ nothingness it turns into/ with time." Nothing escapes McClatchy's moral scrutiny. "O dull gold coin,/ privately held/ and publicly spent." For him, the feces are a premonition of death, the key to a long-dead childhood, and the argument against the self-important posturing of men. "At nine — young enough to believe/ in stories, old enough/ to stand in dread// of something owed to death.…" The poem moves with the loaded serenity of a Beethoven adagio, until the feces come to symbolize that which we always suspected.

In "Jihad," the three-sonnet sequence which gives the collection a grudging timeliness, McClatchy begins:

A contrail's white scimitar unsheathes
Above the tufts of anti-aircraft fire.
Before the mullah's drill on righteousness,
Practice rocks are hurled at chicken wire

The lines breathe conviction through the nostrils. The rhythm not only complements what is said, but seems to echo it, after the literal meaning of the words themselves recedes. Prosody of this level is striking. There is an essay in miniature here; the exposition in the first two lines, and then the verdict and irony of the third and fourth. McClatchy is not afraid of making judgments; he's been there and tried that, and we believe him by virtue of the confidence with which he traces the lines.

In the second stanza, McClatchy attempts to replicate the magic of the first with:

Dummies of tanks with silhouetted infidels
Defending the nothing both sides fight over
In God's name, a last idolatry
Of boundaries. The sirens sound:  take cover.

This is not the first time McClatchy has pointed his moral laser beam at religious hypocrisy; it is an old theme for him, and he is best at it in Ten Commandments. Here though, he adds cowardice to his hit list for disdain:  the ludicrous, self-important rituals of grown men playing at war and righteousness.

In the third of the sonnets, McClatchy begins:

Ski-masked on videotape, the skinny martyr
Reads his manifesto. He's stilted, nervous.
An hour later, he's dropped at the market town,
Pays his fare, and climbs aboard the bus.

Strapped to his chest is the death of thirty-four
— Plus his own— "civilians" on their way
To buy or sell what goods they claim are theirs,
Unlike our fates, which are not ours to say.

He has become documentarian, foreign correspondent, and philosopher in turn. In the last line of the second stanza, he has hit upon the communal fear of our time (and of all times, I suggest):  that our fate is not ours the way an object or possession can potentially be. In the turn of each sonnet, McClatchy takes on the voice of the mullah, the lulling, hypnotic chain of lies in which religion turns the angry, empty lives of men into weapons. He shows us that the word jihad is a contradiction, that 'religious' and 'war' combine to oxymoron, and no civilized person can claim otherwise.

In "Tattoo," McClatchy describes the initiation rite of a Maori chieftain's eldest son:

            A feeding tube
        Was put between his lips.
His arms and legs were held down forcibly  .  .  .

Ritualized pain is a purifying agent, a necessary trial that, once completed, brings the young boy closer to an assumed clarity. One wonders when reading McClatchy how his fascination with physical and emotional pain figures into his aesthetic sensibility.

The cutter smiled and took
A small mallet,
Laid the chisel along
The cheekbone, and tapped so a sharpness struck
The skin like a bygone
Memory of other pain, other threats.

Throughout the first half of Hazmat, the depictions of bondage, disease, torture, and pain are physically, emotionally, and spiritually dealt with.

The second half of the collection is dominated by a series of twenty poems under the broad title, "Motets." Here, the poems become more relaxed in form, and consequently more relaxed in tone as well. In "Fever," McClatchy writes:

Nothing kept out the cold
that shook my body
like a crackhead mother
angry because her baby
won't stop crying.

However, the body and soul are not mutually exclusive; the pain of love is felt as a physical illness.

I'm hauled up, they listen
To my back. What can it say?
They listen to my front.
A deep breath. Does this hurt?
So much I can't answer.

For McClatchy, it is flesh that cannot be trusted. The body betrays all good intentions, and through death cheats one of the solace which comes with trusting that the future will be better. The world is a helpless place, not because men begin with bad intentions, but because flesh corrupts the soul at every turn:  "The flesh corrupted/ with pleasure and punished with more."

In "Infection," he writes:

            (the pain —)
the knot choked by appetite, desperate
to advance and retreat, to thrash further
inside its own swollen sentence ( . . . )

Later in the same poem, he describes limping to the bathroom to put a hot washcloth to his face:

The cloth smelled
Of rotten hyacinths, their stalks snapped,
Their milky petals gone brown and sticky,

Throughout "Motets," McClatchy moves deftly into pure lyric, the understated combustion of image and sound that resides confidently in its own other logic. One senses that the poems here are written, not from a desire to write good poems, but rather, from a need, a fist clenched around the gut. In "Rain Room," the speaker describes a wet scenery ("the swanned moat, the drowned cypresses,") and then declares:  "Everything finally ready for it to sink in." Here, he brings to mind both Plath and Kahlo. The speaker and the lover begin working on a paint-by-numbers canvas of a life together.

You did the blues, I did the reds.
You did the hectic lake, a stand of pines,
The cold shoulder and dull threats.
I did the chimney and dead elms,
The frayed, silken cords of scorn.

The reconciliation we left blank

The finished product is both less and more than the two had anticipated.

On the whole, Hazmat is classic McClatchy. It deals with some of the same themes as Ten Commandments, but expands and deepens them. His concerns and the method which he chooses to handle them seem to come from deeper in the gut this time around.

Highly recommended.