Robert Aquinas McNally
Reviewer: George Wallace
In “Steelheading,” the opening salvo in Robert Aquinas McNally’s new collection of poems, we find a fisherman wading into stormy river waters, casting spoons and threading lures in the finest Western Lit fashion. Doing battle with the elements—bone-chilling, icy elements. Water fills his waders. Driven, shivering, and exhausted, he withdraws to the riverbank. And through all the hardship he’s facing, hour by hour, day by day, he has not caught any fish.
Then it happens. The fisherman gets a hit—and all hell breaks loose: “but when it came/ it was a locomotive runaway/ on a downgrade…/ stripping off line against the drag in a high clear singing.”
The fisherman’s response? Nothing less than a sense of fulfilment. Complete sense of the Zen moment. “The pulsing in my chest, the sharp/ coppery taste in my mouth” lifts him from the pain and patience he has endured, “which is the whole story.”
It is an exhilarating depiction and sets up what amounts to the conundrum at the heart of the book, aptly titled Simply to Know Its Name. “Steelheading” concludes:
What follows the opening poem are fifty pages of poems which frequently pay lip service to “knowing the name” of things but more frequently show a protagonist attempting to erase the boundaries between himself and nature, other times honoring them.
McNally does this with enthusiasm and Western élan, and at their best, these poems place the reader ineluctably in the moment with the author.
The encounters occur at varying chakra levels, from the spiritual to the lowly visceral, as in “Common Stinkhorn.” McNally looks over Thoreau’s shoulder, squinting at a mushroom that suggests nothing more elevated than a visit to the outhouse. In fact, McNally is not averse to examining the less palatable creatures of the wilderness; rattlesnakes, stinkbugs, star-nosed moles, hammerhead sharks, and even rabies have their moment in the spotlight.
“The longer I look, the farther I leave my world behind,” he writes in the prose poem, “Rapture.” “I set all else aside, watch, watch only, until I lose myself in this small kingdom that wants no other.”
By contrast, in “Bobwhite Mandela” McNally stands ‘in simple thrall/ nose dripping into winter,” staring at a covey of bobwhites “hunkered wing to wing, drowsing heads/ vigilantly out,” before ultimately recognizing that his own true home is somewhere else.
For all his attempts to erase boundaries, McNally is at his strongest when he speaks not of connection with but distance from the things of nature. Take “Walking With The Poor-Will,” for example, a delightfully simple story about getting close to a wild bird along some unnamed trail, “the poor-will/ allowing me nearer and nearer until/ I needed only to bend over to feel/ its small heart between warm wings.”
Instead, the speaker in the poem keeps his distance, “relishing the sweet grief dividing/ where man ends and bird begins.”
Putting the issue of boundaries—their erasure or transcendence—aside, the author may frequently be found attempting to establish human analogs, particularly spiritual analogs, to the creatures of the wild. This is particularly true in the second section, “Songs of Two Names.” Here we find McNally, after tipping his hat to the Latin and common names for flora and fauna, turning to literary conceit in order to find meaning in the moment. Turkey Vultures become “uncowled old monks…at play in the currents of paradise.” Rock Doves are the “eyes of monks” rising “like Jesus rising from the Jordan.” The ear-bones of fish are wondrously transformed into “talismans…to shape the fate of the living.” Dolphin-song pulls the speaker down toward a “prophetic poet emerging from Delphi’s cave.” Snow Buntings prance in the breath of polar bears like “Francis, at play before God, singing praises of the small.”
These conceits are more or less successful, in most cases; however, considerable explanation is needed to gain an appreciation for the conceit to be found, for example, in “Green Snakes,” a poem drawing on the myths of Teiresias and Zeus and requiring a footnote explaining the classical mythology which is almost as long as the poem itself. Moments like these aside, McNally’s approach can really soar. In “Quaking Aspen (populus tremuloids),” among other poems, the comparison is viscerally convincing and of such imagistic clarity that it possesses a completely unforced spiritual resonance. “Chant the Latin: and you see them: tall/ and straight, quaking like rung chimes,” he writes in the opening lines.
“The Wilderness is a Poem” also hits squarely. It is a prose poem in praise of “200-foot redwoods and the little hoofprints,” and the author detects in all he sees a wild meter beating like “an ancient Saxon [who] plucks the chords of a poet’s harp, and the consonants click in his mouth.”
And in the outstanding prose poem, “The Woman Who Ran Toward Heaven,” the poet shows himself in full stride, telling the story of a woman who, like other people in the Northwest territories of Canada, “goes missing wildly.” What sounds like a tragic disappearance, however, is presented by McNally as a thing of peace, a thing of resolve and gentleness—the ultimate erasure of boundaries he so earnestly seeks in the temporal, living moment: