The early work of Cynthia Macdonald is sometimes described as too preoccupied with the grotesque and too flippant in tone. However, from the beginning, the poet was admired for her way with words. She has the narrative skill of a fine short-story writer, initially capturing the attention of her readers with a startling image or statement, then maintaining the suspense up to an ending that, though usually less than happy, is always interesting and often memorable.
As the title suggests, the poems in Macdonald’s first collection were almost uniformly grotesque. Most of them deal with literal amputations. Sometimes there is no explanation of the circumstances, as in “Inventory,” where the persona lists his father’s finger as one of the items that appears from time to time in his own ever-present suitcase.
Often, however, a first-person narrator explains in a matter-of-fact manner why the mutilation was not accidental, but necessary. Thus in “Departure,” a mother treats her son’s cutting off his feet as an inevitable stage in the process of becoming independent, while in “Objets d’Art,” it seems perfectly logical to the speaker that she should respond to a stranger’s calling her a “real ball cutter” by relieving as many men as possible of their testicles. These narrators not only treat the amputations as perfectly normal but also take pride in the care with which they treat their relics. Such narratives were undoubtedly symbolic, meant to point out the disjunctive nature of relationships, but most critics felt that their impact was diminished by the poet’s sardonic tone.
However, the poems in Amputations did demonstrate that Macdonald was already well on her way to mastering her craft. In “Departure,” for instance, she captures the reader’s attention with a striking first line: “When he cut off his feet I knew he was leaving.” As she proceeds, she roots surreal scenes in reality with homely details such as “striped sheets” and “Spaghetti sauce” and makes her descriptions vivid by using unexpected imagery, “corrugated toenails,” for example. She drops hints of deeper meanings, as when the mother speaks of being left “alone/ With souvenirs and my spondees,” thus raising issues of time, memory, and the isolation of the artist. The ending of the narrative, however, is as starkly simple as its beginning: “I love you. I have kept the feet in perfect condition.”
Whether they focus on feminist issues, like “Objets d’Art”; on parent-child relationships, like “Departure”; on marital failure, like the autobiographical poem “A Family of Doll House Dolls”; or on an artist’s frustrations, like “The Platform Builder,” Macdonald’s poems show human life as a desperate search for meaning. When the title character in “The Holy Man Walks Through Fire” fails at committing suicide, he becomes convinced that he must have been saved in order to lead his country, though to what he does not know. After a public relations firm has made him famous, he decides to prove his worth by walking through fire on live television. He ends up with third-degree burns, a failed prophet, only too aware that, as he puts it, “My country has not made it through the fire.”
In her second collection, Transplants, Macdonald again uses grotesque images to symbolize the...
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Macdonald, Cynthia (Vol. 13)
Cynthia Macdonald in Amputations … writes like one who nightly explores the unconscious and comes up, in broad daylight, with bizarre reports which she expresses in elegant lines. Example: perhaps every mother has had times when the baby seemed to be devouring her alive, metaphorically and literally. But this poet pictures the baby, "At six months he grew big as six years … One day he swallowed/Her whole right breast …" And then—
When he had ingested her entire, they built him
A mesh form, towel-covered, with milk and music
Piped in, so he could never stop: But
The metal milk disagreed; both died,
She inside him, curled like an embryo….
Often fantastic, sometimes lucidly grotesque, these poems have a kind of inner authority that commands the reader's fascinated, if anxious, attention. (p. 6)
Chad Walsh, in Book World—The Washington Post (copyright © 1972—The Washington Post Company), January 7, 1973.
The grotesque or distorted images of Cynthia Macdonald's poems are too directly significant—nearly allegorical—to be called "surreal", and her poetic method is based on the qualities of prose. But she uses prose forms as some writers use rhyme, ironically; which produces a deadpan effect that is sometimes funny or effective. (p. 243)
Unfortunately, the more of such writing one reads, the more the comic straight-face turns to plain slackness. [Amputations] is quite consistent in style, subject, procedure; what seems reasonably inventive in snatches becomes more and more heavily a "method". Finally, instead of seeming comic and simultaneously anguished, the poems seem to hedge evasively or uncertainly between two emotions. I suppose that one's response to Amputations depends in part upon how you feel about such compulsively protective irony. The fantasies or extended images or whatever you call them seem predictable to me. The wit often holds up best when the subject is literary…. (p. 244)
Robert Pinsky, in Poetry (© 1974 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the editor of Poetry), January, 1974.
[In Transplants] Macdonald is outrageous, both monstrously literal and filled with wild conceits. She's savage and demure, desperate and ladylike;… she balances pain and comedy, specializes in gallows humor and a tone of sardonic deadpan neutrality, as if, understanding all, she does in fact forgive, as if the comic vanity of her anguish is evident to her under the aspect of eternity. Many of her poems are narrative fables, sometimes with nursery rhyme sources…. She has a number of poems about her mother (and perhaps her father too, in the guise of the awful Dr. Dimity), about the "Innard Life" ("They slice me open and pull out my organs which/Play Bach fugues, alternating with skating rink selections"), about stained glass women ("'She has a cutting wit,' they say./And I reply, 'To wit, to woo; cuckoo, cuckoo,'/Trying to make light, as a stained glass woman should"), about the world's biggest man, about detached retinas and bowls that took seven months to make, about her children and her men, and she always entertains, she's never dull, she's sprightly in her anguish, she doesn't insist too much, she's classical in her polish and wit and distance. She says not Behold my eloquent sorrow. How fortunate for you to witness the pain of so rare a one as myself but Listen to me and I'll help you digest your dinner in spite of my straits, which are as I hope we'll both admit funny as a crutch. (pp. 360-62)
Stanley Poss, in Western Humanities Review (copyright, 1976, University of Utah), Autumn, 1976.
When I was a child, my first literary hero was the little boy who saw the naked emperor streaking in the streets and innocently said so. Even now, I am very grateful to those like Cynthia Macdonald who, without the armor of innocence, forswear Good Manners to tell the truth as they see it. Sometimes devastating truths, yes, but within them may lie delicate truths; perhaps how the hair tapers down the naked emperor's torso ever so softly.
Cynthia Macdonald's first mainly devastating book of poetry [Amputations] was about loss of life, limb, and love; the poems were kept upright by the spine of pained humor and bitter wit that ran through them…. [Her second] book is Transplants—and eventually, it's about growth after loss.
Macdonald has recently compared herself as a poet to a circus juggler giving a performance. Her emphasis was on the fact of the audience and the performer's possible freakishness—she is not surprised when her work is compared with Diane Arbus's. But the mainly delicate truth is also that through the performance the performer can be transformed. In "Mistress Mary," she writes of a circus juggler who begins buried in snow juggling 16 inert silver bells. The juggling process itself abets her apotheosis. "Color flowed through her fingers like blood/Returning after freezing." At the end, the silver bells are changed, too, into colored living flowers.
Almost a quarter of the poems in Transplants are quite literally verbal juggling acts in which Cynthia sets in motion two or more voices or kinds of material…. [However] polished the juggling craft is, these poems start from somewhere—the plain old rag and bone shop of the heart.
For me, the most moving performance is "The Late Mother," the last and most climactic of several poems in which a daughter tries to come to terms with...
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Though she is no fool, and certainly nobody's fool, there is a kind of desperate fooling in Cynthia Macdonald's poetry. Transplants, like her first book, Amputations (1972), is a collection of grotesque and hard-edged allegories…. Macdonald maintains [an] allegorical method and tight-lipped, sardonic tone in most of the poems in this volume, and when it works it is one of her peculiar strengths, providing, in poems like Severance Pay, In Preparation, and News of the Death of the World's Biggest Man, a fresh if skewed (perhaps because skewed) perspective on human pain. And it is clear from the poems that Macdonald feels this pain, her own and other's, so acutely that it makes her bones ache; she succeeds as a poet when she makes the reader's bones ache as well.
But this exquisite sensitivity to pain is also at the base of the major problem in Macdonald's poetry. "I sing," she says, "to ward off danger", and this warding off forces her to wear very thick protective masks to shield her from the danger of her too-strong feelings. Sometimes this produces the large grotesque beauties mentioned above, but too often, as in a series called The Doctor Dimity Poems, her masks take on the small, pinched, and bitter contortions of an adolescent cynicism, a knowing sneer at the world's evil which reveals a deep sense of betrayal but fails to come to terms with it. And while this keeps her a distance from...
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Macdonald, Cynthia (Vol. 19)
I find little hilarity and a lot of demanding anguish in Transplants…. [Cynthia Macdonald] writes about the grotesque world of the abyss, whose populace are the lame, the blind, and the distorted…. Macdonald generally leads us to the "transports of passion" and if we recoil from this world gone wholly wrong we have only to remember we do the same before the horrible accidents of daily life. She creates poems that are, in effect, cauterizations, little tragedies whose bloodletting is always offstage and whose point is inevitably moral as well as blunt. Though she is perhaps too gratuitous in leaping this way and that ("I unwrap a package of needles without eyes and a package of / eyes without pupils") and occasionally lapses into the afflatus of poetry magazine poses ("Our dreams are filled with the bones of desire."), she is a no-nonsense poet who seems able to use everything in the service of art. (p. 33)
Dave Smith, "Dancing through Life among Others: Some Recent Poetry from Younger American Poets," in The American Poetry Review (copyright © 1979 by World Poetry, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Dave Smith), Vol. 8, No. 3, May-June, 1979, pp. 29-33.∗
[Cynthia Macdonald's (W)holes] celebrates what has become grafted and integrated, acknowledges remaining hollows and voids, and in its punning economy, reveals something of her poetic imagination.
In Macdonald's work, the body is central, an object of attention because it is assaulted or deprived (the various holes gone unfilled) or grotesque…. Macdonald continues her fascination with freaks: the eponymous World's Fattest Dancer, the Siamese Sextuplets and the hermaphrodite in "The Conception," among others. Though Macdonald feels an alliance with photographer Diane Arbus (whom she quotes in the epigraph) perhaps she shouldn't. While Arbus's freaks are "them," Macdonald's are more "us." They are stars who perform. They are survivors.
In other ways as well, (W)holes extends the themes and forms Macdonald has consistently been interested in. There are new interior monologues, as in "The Kilgore Rangerette Whose Life Was Ruined"; a continued relish in detail and cataloging detail, as in "Containing", and a persisting pleasure in puns and wordplay, everywhere. But in several ways, (W)holes is more than a simple addition to Macdonald's previous work; it's a squaring or cubing, maybe; a victory of synergy.
While the earlier poems touched on sexuality, these poems embrace eroticism, yet keenly aware of its dangers….
In her use of puns, Macdonald has made an...
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[The poems in (W)holes attend] to one kind of human aberration or another, and [range] in tone from the dramatic—"The Secrets Of E. Munch," for example—to the rhetorical—"Celebrating the Freak"—and the whimsical—"The World's Fattest Dancer":
Whoever dances with her, she is
The biggest attraction.
If the central purpose here is to examine what we see as normality by drawing attention to deviations, that purpose is undermined by such flippancy. One would need the bleak and desolate humor of William Burroughs or the magical goofy wit of Ron Padgett to pull it off. The world of pain and isolation and grief with which this poet is concerned is far too heavy for such flimsy attitudes….
The separate parts do not cohere … except as references to the personality of the poet. And this is the problem…. Cynthia Macdonald brings an intelligence that is already informed by a set of concerns which reduces that experience to fit a preconceived pattern. It is not that she cannot write or does not have the necessary equipment; it is simply a matter of focus.
Doug Lang, "The Pleasures of Poetic Justice," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1980, The Washington Post), February 10, 1980, p. 11.∗
Cynthia Macdonald has long since been taken over by her poems. There is a point of view behind them, distinctly warped, but the personality that informs the point of view is nowhere present. Some readers will appreciate this, others will shudder. Her title, with its trick option, "(W)holes," is in turn intended to remind readers of her previous collections, "Transplants," and "Amputations."
A considerable number of the poems in the present collection speak for a cult of the anomalous. The huchback, the dwarf, the bag-woman, the Siamese sextuplets, the world's fattest dancer, these are Miss Macdonald's surreal correlatives for something she believes she is saying about the human condition. I think it best to disregard the probability that she is saying anything, either as compassion or indictment. She is more comfortably read as a fairly brilliant coiner and collector of phrases that often coalesce in a bizarre composition, to be enjoyed solely for the incongruity of the elements so assembled.
Vernon Young, "Rhetoric & Reality," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 2, 1980, pp. 16-17.∗
Macdonald temporarily imposes upon her experience an all-embracing circus metaphor, and the metaphor proves … [unreliable]. When the metaphor works well, as it does in "The World's Fattest Dancer," "The Siamese Sextuplets," and "The Lady Pitcher," it parodies both Hulme's sense that by metaphors and fancy language may be made precise and Stevens' "supreme fictions" as vehicles of perception. The strain on the metaphor to disclose by a kind of wit-work often ends … in grotesque costuming. "Burning the Babies," in its interplay of original and quoted material, attempts to present more directly Macdonald's sense of how life does shuttle between present and past, action and reflection, impulse and recoil…. "It is time," she suggests, "to look at the boxes," to reexamine premises, "to check the babies," and presumably, to come up with views that do not darken but have holes, like those William Carlos Williams gives to the imagination, for man to escape through. (p. 464)
Jerome Mazzaro, "At the Start of the Eighties," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1980 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXIII, No. 3, Autumn, 1980, pp. 455-68.∗