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A Challenge to “build our hearts”: John A. McDermott’s Writhe. Waltz

Writhe. Waltz (Kelsay Books, 2020), John A. McDermott’s second volume of poetry, is impressive from start to finish. Many weighty themes are explored in the collection’s five sections, but the poems are connected by the voice of a down-to-earth speaker who is honest, compassionate, profound, and—at perfect moments—refreshingly humorous.

The first part of the collection strikes hard, featuring several poems about toxic masculinity and misogyny. “The Famous Actor Playing Tevye Curses at the Understudy” foregrounds the bullying of an aspiring actor (an army vet) at the hands of a seasoned Broadway performer. Smarting at the abusive treatment, the understudy blames himself, thinking he must have “offended … somehow” (25). In “The Wrestler Makes Weight,” a “broad-bellied coach” challenges a young boy to gain weight for an upcoming match by saying, “[i]t’s / just a pound, a pound now, don’t be a pussy” (30). A far more disturbing example of these themes is presented in “Benign,” a piece focused on a serial killer who kept the mutilated bodies of the women he murdered. As a husband, as a father of a young daughter, the speaker is especially haunted by this gruesome story. Amending the words of Robert Frost, he says, “somedays / there are no fences in the world tall enough / to make good neighbors” (22).

In subsequent sections, McDermott uses various aspects of popular culture as springboards to examine everything from financial difficulties to fatherhood to gnawing existential concerns. Several of these poems focus on well-known board or party games. In “Risk,” for example, the speaker concludes by suggesting that the game be returned to the closet. He hopes that we, like him, are “sick of war as recreation” (41). In “Monopoly,” what starts out as “all a game” (45) shifts into a too-real world in which “[u]tilities are mounting” and there is “no cash to pay for light, / or heat, or water…” (45). “Nirvana Playing Twister With the Smashing Pumpkins” combines a fascination with games and love for 90s music icons. With humorous self-deprecation, the speaker chastises himself for “watching useless shit” (84) on Youtube. However, at the same time, he recognizes that the video of these rock stars playing the body-bending game is offering him something more significant: maybe “nostalgia” (83) he thinks, or “therapy” (84). The speaker also leaves open the possibility that he’s “still twisted / trying to figure it all out” (84).

McDermott draws similar inspiration from familiar places we frequent in the course of our hectic, itinerant lives. In “A History of This Hotel Sofa,” for example, the speaker’s reflection on “these cushions where other souls / have waited or wondered, or worried, too” (100) leads him to the realization that “those strangers are kin” (101). “Dawn DFW International” finds the speaker standing in front of a mirror in an airport restroom, seeing and greeting with raised hand the ghosts of “a hundred faces” who, like him, have been “too long on the road” (104).

“The Jarred Heart,” a darkly comic and sometimes surreal poem, fittingly concludes the collection, revisiting key themes and imagery in a more ambitious manner. The speaker begins by explaining the ancient Egyptian burial practice of removing internal organs of the deceased. As he considers this ritual, he can’t help but reflect on his own life. Memories are connected to each of his own internal organs. As he contemplates his lungs, for example, he thinks about breath expended with a long-ago lover. As he considers his liver, he remembers his struggles with alcohol. These serious reflections are tempered by humorous touches. Early on, the speaker juxtaposes the sublime Egyptian ritual of washing a dead person’s heart in wine with the description of his own still-beating heart absorbing the “blended red sold for ten dollars / a bottle in the Kroger on University Drive” (111). Elsewhere, he describes his six-year-old daughter’s earnest desire to mummify him so that he will remain with her forever.

Misogyny, economic woes, violent conflict, existential questions—what is one do in the face of all that (borrowing the first word from the collection’s title) makes us writhe? The “Twister” poem discussed above suggests a temporary escape through music and screen. “Horn of Plenty” depicts respite that comes from the simple joy a father experiences when seeing his daughter “awed” (60) by the inner workings of a multicolored mechanical pen. There is also the balm of alcohol. In “The Little Man on the Mantel,” the speaker’s contemplation of a decorative figurine “dramatizing the evils of drink” (106) leads to reflection on the medicinal use of spirits in his own life. “Oh booze,” the speaker declares, “I wouldn’t want to lose you” (107).  

The second word of the volume’s title—waltz—suggests yet another way to deal with life’s challenges. As McDermott’s graceful lines sweep us along, we can remember that we are all part of a breathtaking dance called life. Whatever our strategy, it is essential—as the speaker explains in “News from Across Continents”—to “build our hearts / big enough to hold / whatever’s in the works.”   

A Chat About Flash

My colleague Jim Esch has started a podcast focused on English and Creative Writing at Widener. In the first episode, our department chair Janine Utell talks about teaching Joyce’s Ulysses. In the second, I talk about (and read some) flash fiction. One of our especially talented current students reads her work as well. If you’re interested in taking a listen, here’s the link: https://anchor.fm/widener-english-suite/episodes/Saying-more-with-less-discovering-the-world-of-flash-fiction-epo8vc?fbclid=IwAR0H9r4KB29U01GJUPa-C7BjwAA02M44eIEjOWp2YFvNUWlq4lKKH-3VklQ