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...
(The entire section is 421 words.)
[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.∗