Trouble Light
Gerald McCarthy
West End Press
ISBN Number: 9780981669304

Reviewer: JoSelle Vanderhooft

          In an eerie coincidence, several of the books that I have reviewed for this issue of The Pedestal Magazine, all from different publishers in different parts of the United States, focus on the lives, landscapes and people of rural and small-town America in such similar ways that the texts seem almost to be speaking to each other.

          Gerald McCarthy’s latest collection, Trouble Light, is no exception to this coincidence. Although McCarthy’s subject matter is geographically broader than that considered in books such as Mom’s Canoe or My Father’s Speech (see my chapbook review for more details), McCarthy is nevertheless concerned with some of the same topics: the beauty and character of the rural landscape; the hardiness and dignity of its inhabitants; and, expectedly, his own familial and emotional connections to this world and its people.

          Consider, for example, poems such as “Migrant labor camp #7,” in which McCarthy paints a vivid portrait of one such worker as he counts “bushels of cabbages/stacked in wooden crates”—or “The arc welder,” which describes New York welder John Kellog standing amid “the glow” of “a shower of sparks/ on the wooden floor” as his daughter plays outside the shop, hoping that he will finish work and come home soon. Consider also poems such as “Daydream,” in which the poet thinks of his deceased son while watching his living sons play a casual game of football—or “Portrait of my father with Caravaggio’s hands,” an evocation of the poet’s father as he makes a quick charcoal sketch of a lake.

          Each of these poems bristles with immediate, lively imagery and detail—the father’s hands “not curled or shaking,/ but thick, articulate,” the father “half believing his own lie” as he daydreams about the might-have-beens of a lost son’s future. They are, however, not the poems upon which I would like to focus. Rather, I would draw the reader’s attention to those poems of McCarthy’s that sing with rural rhythms, but which focus on somewhat broader topics.

          McCarthy, for example, is an astute and honest chronicler of war, its destruction and its exorbitant human cost. He is also a chronicler of yet another group that American society would like very much to forget: prisoners. While his poems about the rural landscape and his family’s place within it are exquisite, his poems about soldiers and prisoners are, to me, the highlights of Trouble Light.

          In “The wounded” (here reproduced in full), McCarthy writes of issues that have always deeply affected soldiers: disabling injury to the body and post-traumatic stress disorder, known more colloquially (and perhaps more widely in the past) as “shell-shock.” Note how subtly McCarthy builds his metaphors, using imagery from the rural landscape (wild turkeys, juniper, the winter light) to lead the reader first to the cemetery, and then to the suffering and “shell-shocked” who do not reside there, but in a realm that, like a supermarket lobster tank, seems located somewhere between the worlds of the dead and the living.

There’s a kind of slanting late winter light
out on the edge of a field,
so when you look closely it’s like a border,
only fluid, moving.
A group of wild turkeys
feeds on the juniper and bearberries
near the entrance to what the locals call
the other Arlington 
a hillside cemetery off the old King’s Highway,
and that light is coming toward them.
If you listen you can hear
the soft clucking sounds they make.
Today in the glare of the supermarket light,
my son makes me look at lobsters
piled on one another in a plastic tank.
They don’t move much in there, he says.
They’re stunned, I tell him,
their claws taped up, waiting.
Outside in the late March dusk
a cold rain on stone, you think of them—
trapped in their tanks
or hospital beds.

          In other war poems, such as “Winter Solstice 2005 (the new war dead),” McCarthy returns to nature to describe the recently deceased in (I assume) the United States’ ongoing war in Iraq. Here a flock of starlings becomes the device through which the speaker recalls his friend (called “Birdman of Church Street”) who numbers among the recent casualties. “The dead come back,” McCarthy writes. “A line of graying birds/ huddled together in the rain.” In “American Cemetery at Nettuno,” a burial ground in the poet’s beloved nation of Italy that is home to Allied soldiers who invaded Italy during 1944, McCarthy begins with the image of Pope Clement VI sitting between two fires to keep him safe from the plague. Many of his countrymen, however, were not so fortunate.

These crosses seem to sway and curve—
Their lines extend away, their names
Are all the places that were them.
No fires kept these fallen from harm’s way.

These dead come back—almost a fourth of all
who lie here—named or unnamed
are Italian.
They sent the homeboys back
to fight in Sicily and Anzio.
The dusk is coming on,
there are too many names.

          This slow build-up to a surprising, yet subtle, resolution is a technique McCarthy also employs in his poems about prisoners (according to his biography, the poet spent time in military prison and civilian jail for deserting the army during the Vietnam War and has since taught poetry in prisons). In “Attica 1977” (its title from a poem by Sharif Lateef—also known as Ray Chunn), McCarthy juxtaposes the feeling of being inside a crypt among war dead with the lively act of reading poetry together with incarcerated men.

          McCarthy’s poetry about prisons is also notable for his compassion for the men he sees. He dwells not upon their crimes, but upon their humanity—a cigarette or a laugh shared in “Attica 1977,” for example. Some are even his friends, as is the unnamed man in “For a friend in prison” (here reproduced in full).

Today the newspaper headlines—
A letter on the table—
an extended sentence
upstate. I see your face
behind the pages.
I hear the gate guard
cough and shake his keys
A voice says: One, coming in.
The electric door slides shut.
After shackling your hands and ankles,
the guards lead you down a tunnel
toward the D Block cell.

          Whether soldier or prisoner, laborer or father, lost son or disenfranchised steel worker, McCarthy’s talent lies in showing the reader the faces behind the pages of his work. His skillful, intricate and deeply literary poetry (which comes complete with an index of first lines and allusions McCarthy has borrowed) is urgent and deeply contemplative. It has moved me profoundly, and I would recommend it highly, of course, to the reader interested in the poetry of rural and small-town America as well as to any reader who enjoys well-structured and intricate verse.

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