Weekly Prose Feature: “A Review of Rousing the Machinery by Catherine MacDonald” by Adam Tavel

May 10, 2013

Rousing the Machinery won the 2012 Miller Williams Arkansas Poetry Prize with The University of Arkansas Press, and rightly so, for Catherine MacDonald’s debut collection embodies craft, cohesion, and emotional sincerity in poems free of the preciousness and precociousness that so often mar first books. Rooted in the elemental struggles of poverty, incarceration, failed romance, generation gaps, motherhood, identity, and neglected histories both personal and public, MacDonald’s work confronts the hardscrabble truths of working-class America. And yet, this catalog of survival fails to adequately capture the grit and gusto of Rousing the Machinery, since it so often transcends the material circumstances of its personal narratives to achieve a unity and boldness of spirit that bears scars and dreams alike.

The titles alone in Rousing the Machinery speak to the personal, familial, and sociological struggles that dominate its poems: “Notes on Prison,” “Patron Saint of the Toothache,” “Estranged Labor,” and “How to Leave Home” all appear in the book’s first of three sections. A conjurer of rust and ruin, MacDonald frequently turns her gaze to America’s bleakest corners to search out any thread or wisp or rumor worthy of salvage. In “Grace,” the collection’s opener, MacDonald makes a muscular melody from such shards:

In this raw corner of a no-rank town, rusting
swing sets wobble under the weight of fierce

children as thunderstorm torrents ride pin-
straight alleys down the backsides

of backyards. When they think no one
is looking, my brothers pee on the alley

storm-grates…

The imaginative particulars of this rough-and-tumble realm reinforce the tidal forces of home, memory, and longing: St. Pauli Girl, The Rifleman, an alcoholic father’s Chevrolet Impala, homemade Halloween costumes, a dingy sippy cup faded with age.

The book’s middle section inhabits a calmer domestic realm, as the joys, anxieties, and pangs of motherhood increasingly dominate MacDonald’s subject matter and themes. Though shorter than the other sections in Rousing the Machinery, we see MacDonald’s voice at its most lyrical and contemplative here in a string of narratives that exhibit a deftness of tone and pacing. “Leda at Work in the World,” “Appetite,” “Sweet Box,” and the longer sequence “Some Mothers Ask” explore the boundaries of parental protection, the limits of innocence, and the myriad ways in which our world strains the tethers between mother and son. We also encounter the collection’s title poem, a diptych of loose sonnets that invoke and beseech the spirit of William Blake. Its rich diction, taut concision, and kinetic syntax show MacDonald at her best:

Rousing the Machinery

        The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.
—William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

i.
Observe the perpetual boy, as one
with the pop-eyed crowd. He’s come
to see the King’s menagerie: camel, bear,
leopard, lion, tyger: stripe over stripe,
swinging its heavy head with each sullen
step. He notes the fixed pit of its pupil,
the eyes’ bulge and slow blink. Who will extol
this captive, pacing the round tower room?
Who will grind its bones for luck, pluck
stiff whiskers for a paintbrush, rend fat
for an aphrodisiac? Who will inhale
scent of musk, tang of urine soaked
in stone, sing, Marvelous, its assets?
A boy.

ii.
This morning in Raleigh’s exurban flank,
I watch the bad boys of Selma
Alternative High School craft paper wasps.
They loft them across the bedlam
of the classroom to where the tyger, perfect-
bound, sleeps in my hands. With a stroke,
a stroke, a stroke, the machinery is roused
and in the corner of the classroom,
above our heads, gangly wasps disgorge wood
to make paper. Watch: the miracle
occurs in a vessel, an enclosure, in a lidded pot
on a hot stove, in a woman’s body
where a child grows, or in the insect
jaw, ganglia, and lobe.

For all of its proletarian blues and maternal yearning, however, Rousing the Machinery remains a nuanced and capacious book, studded with overt and covert allusions to a vast constellation of artists—from Jefferson to Degas to Akhmatova to Frederick Douglass to Morris Rosenfield, among a host of others. Indeed, one of MacDonald’s prevailing themes reinforces the notion that our inner lives—half remembered, half invented, brimming with nostalgic totems—have the power to revise, redeem, and at times remake the world, or at the very least our understanding of the world. Later poems, such as “Azores Time,” “Teaching Myself to Sew,” and “Sing Whatever Is Well Made” broach more political subject matter that offers welcome counterpoint to the book’s largely confessional preoccupations, and perhaps foreshadow the ambitiousness we can expect from MacDonald in her future work.

A handful of flatly prosaic poems in Rousing the Machinery suffer from a lack of editorial control, such as the rambling “At the Registry of Regrets,” which attempts to gain too much mileage from its conceit: “May, the pretzel shop lady, tells me stories, / which are not unlike the pretzels / we bake, wrap, and sell at the mall…” Moreover, “Wasps in the Kitchen” never moves beyond the mere situation its title describes, and becomes a quaint exercise in anthropomorphizing a drone and queen. We encounter another stalled effort in “Empire and the Evangelical Sublime,” which juxtaposes a moment of introspection with a fragmentary reference to colonial smallpox in 1587, and the cluttered result fails to do justice to either impulse. It’s remarkable for a reader to count a first book’s failures on one hand, however, and it speaks to MacDonald’s talents that these missteps remain episodic and innocuous.

The front flap of Rousing the Machinery announces that its contents “detail the passages of an ordinary life.” This pithy summary correctly places MacDonald’s work in the tradition of Bishop and Levine while simultaneously attracting readers grown weary of contemporary poetry’s tendency to avoid direct confrontations with experience. Nevertheless, such sentiments seem reductive for this reviewer, as they fail to represent the range and tenderness of MacDonald’s poems, as well as her brave ambition to, in the words of Adrienne Rich, dive into the wreck. Indeed, MacDonald dares her open heart in these pages, and her clear, rising voice shines in this tenacious debut.

—Adam Tavel

Adam TavelAdam Tavel received the 2010 Robert Frost Award, and his forthcoming collections are The Fawn Abyss (Salmon, 2014) and Red Flag Up (Kattywompus, 2013), a chapbook. His recent poems appear or will soon appear in Quarterly West, The Massachusetts Review, Passages North, West Branch, and Southern Indiana Review, among others. Tavel is an associate professor of English at Wor-Wic Community College on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

Each Friday we will publish a new essay, review, or interview for the 32 Poems Weekly Prose Feature, edited by Emilia Phillips. If you have any questions or comments about the series, please contact Emilia at emiliaphillips@32poems.com.

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