Sunday, October 31, 2010

Anagramming America in Kevin McFadden's Hardscrabble

Kevin McFadden’s debut collection, the diligent, turvey, hyper-lexic Hardscrabble (University of Georgia Press 2008), opens unassumingly, with a short proem—an ars typographica of sorts—on that most emphatic of conjugates, “Is”:

written this way

to almost resemble



half sinuous.

It’s a clever start, if a reflexive one, suggesting, as it does, a playfulness always already latent in physical typography, while also anticipating the 100 pages of poetry and prose that follow. Often rollicking and always witty, McFadden’s poems take Heather McHugh’s pathology of the punster—someone not “merely resigned to accident” but “committed to it”—and makes of it a poetic imperative. In anagrams, puns, and all manner of homophonic and homonymic wordplay, McFadden (like Harryette Mullen, Liz Waldner, Kristi Maxwell, and McHugh herself) thralls in what other writers merely lament, or too often ignore altogether: the inadequacy of language to mean in any stable, transparent way. Indeed, in Hardscrabble, language’s unpredictability and, by extension, its dynamism are not unlike the public, private, mythological America,—that "great wordplay of democracy," that embarrassment of linguistic richness—on which so many of McFadden’s poems fixate.

Nowhere is this exuberance for the American idiom more on display than in what McFadden has published elsewhere as his “variations,” poems that, in the book at least, typically borrow a line of literary Americana—the plaintive vision of a Ginsberg (“America when will you be angelic?”); or the stoic monumentalism of a Lowell (“History has to live with what was here”); or the carnal voracity of a Plath (“And I eat men like air.”); or the folksy nativism of a Frost (“The land was ours before we were the land’s”)—and riff on it, sometimes exhaustively, always audaciously, each subsequent line a perfect anagrammatical re-arrangement of the line preceding it. Sometimes the poem builds toward its borrowed line; sometimes the lifted portion appears mid-way through the poem; sometimes the poem departs from the appropriated line. In the eight variations that appear sporadically throughout Hardscrabble, such arrangements and re-arrangements challenge, ironize, or otherwise re-contextualize the original line's aura of meaning.

Take, as just one example, McFadden's poem “Meditate Sea to Sea,” which borrows its first line from the title of the Langston Hughes poem, “Let America Be America Again”:

Let America be America again.

Ice-age ambiance. Later a mira-

cle air: a meat mania, ice-barge,

ice-amble. A tie. Agrarian came

later, Inca came, a bare image I

bear. An Eric came, agile at aim

(let America be a maniac, I rage).

Italian came----macabre, I agree.

Came Iberia, came Angle, a rat I

Rate, a marine bilge. Came a CIA

angelic era, a tame iambic ear.

Bacteria came in a mire, algae

era. Militia came, began a race,

a crime, eager aim, Cain at Abel.

At Abe L. Imagine a ceramic era,

ceramic ear: I am it. A lab. A gene

I age. A meme trace. A bicranial

air age, a bicameral cinema, et

cetera, a manic beige malaria,

a carnage. American I let be. I am

a cameraman, I create a big lie

(let America be a camera I gain),

I am a cabaret emcee, a girl in a

Miami tribe, an eagle, a car, ace

Airman. Elegaic America, a bet:

let America be a magic arena I

anagram. I bet I care (came a lie,

a clear image), I bet America an

animal acreage, I bet America

beer I can amalgamate air, ice-

berg. An ale. Ace-at-ear, I mimic a

man (bare me) I glaciate Americana----

I’m a rain. Let America be a cage;

I remain a gate, a Mecca. I blare

Niagra, I accelerate, maim, be

a beam, I emanate a grail, Circe

mirage. America, a neat cable I

tie in. America, a gala embrace.

Let America be America: a gain.

The technical virtuosity required to keep a poem like this one moving—without ceding tonal variety, without sacrificing comprehensibility to constraint—goes without saying. Indeed, the poem must—and, I think, does—strike a balance between the strictures of McFadden’s self-imposed process and the freedoms such limitations can afford. The poem churns. It obsesses. It chews over Hughes' original, transposing the same twenty-four constituent letters and repurposing them into a poem that evokes seemingly incompatible formal literary antecedents (insistent Whitmanesque cataloging; Dickinson's compacted, epigrammatic phrasing; the procedural strictures of OULIPO), while simultaneously re-engaging and recalibrating Hughes' spirit of indignation and defiance.

Indeed, if Hughes' original is a direct address to—and indictment of—the hypocrisies and paradoxes at the heart of America's founding idealisms ("the dream that's almost dead today"); if Hughes' original has been a rallying cry to the dispossessed and disenfranchised ("Who made America / Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain, / Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain, / Must bring back our mighty dream again . . ."); then McFadden's poem, born as it is from the nearly 75 intervening years of political and poetical advancements (or lack thereof), is both a reaffirmation of America's ostensible egalitarian vision ("American never was America to me, / And yet I swear this oath— / America will be.") and a kind of 21st century coda. It's the aspirational spirit of Hughes' final word ("again") around which McFadden's poem pivots the most, punning on the potential white space separating the "a" (now an indefinite article seeking definite progress) from "gain" ("Let America be America: a gain."), such that each of McFadden's lines becomes a "gain," but a gain that is first among equals, and therefore "again," a literalization of e pluribus unum, many-in-one.

And yet it's the destabilizing nature of the anagram and not the rhetoric for which it's used that draws attention to one of the great paradoxes of McFadden's process—progress. With each recombinant line, each coalescence and re-coalescence of letters on the poem's surface, the idea of America deepens, becoming (and just as soon un-becoming) a “maniac,” an “angelic era,” a “cage,” a “grail,” a “mirage." The poem collapses the American mythos into a brisk, schizophrenic progression through the ages, from "Ice-age ambiance" to our current hyper-mediated, hyper-surveilled, po-mo culture (“I am a cameraman, I create a big lie”). And there's depth to the critique of America's contradictory—and often sordid—histories. By turns hostile ("let America be a maniac, I rage.”), violent (Militia came, began a race, a crime, eager aim"), wistful ("I remain a gate, a Mecca"), America, sometimes scaled-down to a single line or phrase—another paradox!—becomes not some grand narrative but a plurality of contradicting, contravening narratives (“I accelerate, maim, be a beam”), the collective concatenations of language itself (“let America be a magic arena I / anagram"), without which the America ideal—whatever it is, whenever it is—would be inarticulate.

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