on If You Can Tell, poems by James McMichael (Farrar Straus & Giroux)

If You Can Tell is James McMichael’s sixth book of poems, not including The World At Large (1996), his selected collection. He has produced a book every decade or so. When a new one appears, I gather all of his titles and read them again. Cesare Pavese wrote in his notebook, “The delight of art – perceiving that one’s own way of life can determine a method of expression.” But Pavese’s remark doesn’t suggest that a poet always or ever knows with certainty what his/her “way of life” actually comprises. The rigorous precision of McMichael’s unknowingness and the discursive side trips of his temperate bafflement have marked his distinctive presence in American poetry for almost 50 years.

In an early notebook, I transcribed the following poem from McMichael’s first book, Against the Falling Evil (Swallow Press, 1971):


You build it where you will be heard only by chance
And at a great distance. The hammer is moss

And the saw moves like the wolf’s shoulder,
Smoothly, and with no sound. It is a good start.

The seasons themselves come singly, and you are still
North of it all, north of brooding on that later time

When it will be quieter, when the door will not hold,
When the raccoons, on their first night inside,

Will not trouble to be afraid, their heads
Bent in the squares of moonlight, dreaming of the north.

McMichaelJacket.jpgIn retrospect, the poem vibrates with prescience. Missing the gene of a careerist, McMichael has built his poems at a great distance. “The Cabin North Of It All” describes a life inclined to proceed without progressing -- the house in the north is inhabited by the feral dream of the north. There is also Pavese’s delight of art, downsized: “It is a good start.” All of the wonderings, frayings and breakages to come are anticipated.

In Each In A Place Apart (1994), the dissolution of a marriage is the topic – but the reader’s astonishment rises from listening to the combined sounds of reticence and mercilessness. Unlike many of his contemporaries who have addressed their troubles, he doesn’t sacrifice everything to tone (to appear as gorgeous in distress). The quasi-blandness silently admits to necessity and bewilderment. Where others employ a candid charm, McMichael has little utility for a sharp profile:

To get away from the house to see her
I’d kept pleading work. The library at school was
quieter, I’d said, the kids weren’t there. It had served,
though they weren’t troublesome or loud. Now, I sit them
next to one another, tell them I’ll be moving
away for awhile, that I’m going to live
somewhere else. Nothing from Geoff, from Bobby
instantly a chuckle and smile.
“Are you happy? Why did you laugh?"
“Because now we won’t bother you when you have to write.”

McMichael is at once a most personal and discreet poet, a mix unexpectedly suggesting an often vexing but abiding interdependency between oneself and the world. However, he has no interest in explicating that relationship as if he were an emblem for the totality. Alan Shapiro has noted that “in the psychological vision [McMichael] develops, public and private experience, self and world, remain distinct yet intersecting, mutually entailing rays of a shared history.” Making claims for poetry, we often say that it is an art through which the inner life speaks with its own rhythm. But McMichael’s utterances seem to issue from a calmly quizzical middle-zone where habit is given to instinct, impulses, ideas, conditions, forces and actualities.

Each book employs its diction, syntax, and meter in its own manner. His third book, Four Good Things (1980), offers a dense and discursive historical perspective, a sharp turn from his short poems. In 2006, he published Capacity, a collection that makes clear he had always been more attuned to pitch than tone, prepared to experiment sonically. The radical sound-changes of Capacity, delicately taut, comprise strange halting sentences, inventively anachronistic syntax, and the taking up of subjects whose aspects emerge slowly as the language finds its adequacy. Below, the opening lines of “Back”:

A place can be disposed so
ill toward them that many
lives are untimely.
To a nation by one’s
birth to it belongs the law to carry

through to their ruin
all untimely lives.

Securing to it through their mothers’ travail
all bodies that can make do,
capacity stays
ahead of what happens,

it fits it

out for them first that they might
feed and pass waste.
A first thing the neonate

mouth had been for in hunger was to seize.

McMichaelReads.jpg“Back” continues for another 260 lines, stunning in its pivots and returns, observations and pronouncements: “One’s call from the start // is from ahead where there is nothing.” Capacity is a space to be filled and a talent for sustaining life within it – despite ruin. Capacity opens with a poem called “The British Countryside in Pictures” – a reminder that McMichael follows after the English Metaphysical poets, those who called out to the mysteries by making their way through their earthly materials.

The techniques and locutions of Capacity carry over to If You Can Tell. In a time of social injustice, we seek and applaud the most resonant new books of civic-minded and change-demanding poetry, and so we should. If You Can Tell is the other book we should consider at this instant. It turns toward the moment envisioned in “The Cabin North of It All” when, after “the door will not hold,” we and the raccoons “will not trouble to be afraid.” In these superb poems, McMichael assesses a whole life and the residues of its values and thoughts. It asks a soundless question: what language and what terms are available to me, after everything, to consider everything? Below, the opening poem, complete:


Christmas comes from stories.
These promise that God’s love for us will outstrip death.
Only if it’s not likely to can the believed in happen.
All I can be sure of waiting for it
is that I want it to come. I’d rather it be

love that at its last the body can’t

take anymore and dies of,
alive at once to its having been made good.
Results at the end vary. Children beloved by them
are sometimes told by the dying

“I thought it would be you of
all people who would keep me here.”
If it’s to be to God’s keep that I give up those I lose,

then God both knew what it was to lose a son and could do
nothing either times to save him.

That doesn’t sound like God. I’m supposing God can do all.
Lost twice to body, Jesus was as quickly back again in
God’s love forever.
It was given to me to have been

loved for my first six years in a house that had my nanny
Florence in it and my mother and dad. Never talked about
even by them,
my mother’s doom was there too. In the looks those three passed,
each had to have seen the stakes in who was who

and may have wanted to switch.

I’m lost to the ways that love is right
at bodies sometimes, always just as it’s leaving and
other without words.

McMichaelCover_0.jpgThe poems speak about childhood, human relations, lifespan, wisdom and folly, love, the force that inhabits us and the world, art and language. We recognize the frame of reference, the weight of familiar spiritual concepts, the importance of our affections and connections, the blowback of memory. McMichael accepts them as usable and so do we. But also: “The passible / is what we’re able to bear.” In If You Can Tell, the poet gives us bearable language and strives to make it better for another purpose -- to stare down what is actual. When McMichael writes, “Existences are incomplete,” my understanding is gratified because I sense its ungratified capacity.

Inadequacy, folly, and dented faith meet mortality: “The time is short.” The rhythms of aphorism and scripture meet the pauses of doubt and skepticism. The acidic aftertaste of one’s acts won’t dilute. The poems are contemporary epistles. Part II of “Of Paul” begins:

A man who has a wife
sleeps as though he has none.
When sleep won’t have him,

flesh makes him love
one only from among all
second persons,

female and male.
Dreamless sleep graces those in it
with an equity that
doesn’t know sex.
The man bears to his wife in sleep unspoken

neighbor-love and no more,
he’s made
no promises he can’t take back.
Some promises are

They lend to the one who keeps them

an ease that turns

diseased when they fail.
It can happen that a wakeful man corrupts and does
something he hates.
He knows it all

day then: against the
shame he is
there ought to be a purge.

William Meredith said that the writers who most deeply concern us are those “who have escaped from a confused human identity into the identity they willed and consented to.” To be baffled, to be sustained but also puzzled by one’s small portion, is not tantamount to confusion. McMichael’s consent has the ring of finality spoken by “the self he’s off scoured down to" -- and spoken to a respected listener (who is also at a great distance): "The unsubstitutable / life of someone. / It can't be seen // through to. / Another person's being / can't be got right."

He writes, “The force that / animates us shows as nothing at all.” We’re left to observe the results -- the poems both are and remark on what remains. Perhaps it is the force of experience, even more than its nature, that animates If You Can Tell.

[Published February 2, 2016. 73 pages, $23.00 hardcover]


I love this lyrical, thoughtful and consummate review. I didn't know McMichael before and I am still rereading this. Thank you Ron

McMichael review

Ron, brilliant essay. He was at Stanford before you, right? Amazed at how many of my fellow poetry lovers either don't know or vaguely know JM's work. Lovers of his poetry are a kind of cultural cult. But I'd like the cult to become a nation. Thanks!