Walt McDonald Essay - Critical Essays


Though early in his career Walt McDonald was considered a Vietnam poet, he is best known as a Southwest regionalist. In an interview with Fred Alsberg, he suggested that his regions are not so much real places as “regions of the mind,” “cluster[s] of images or obsessions that a writer draws on over and over, for poems.” What he is describing is more accurately an intellectual complex than any particular place on the map. Thus as the term “region” applies to McDonald’s work, “Texas” and “Vietnam” are rightly understood as regions, but so are “flying” and “family life.”

Caliban in Blue, and Other Poems

Informed by his years as a pilot, service in Vietnam, and literary study, the poems in McDonald’s first book, Caliban in Blue, and Other Poems, are carefully crafted, allusive, and detached. After reading the book, poet Donald Justice asked, “Where’s Texas in your poems, Walt?”—a question that would prove to be a turning point. Though Caliban in Blue, and Other Poems was an excellent book, its foremost critical importance may reside in what it lacked: Texas.

McDonald responded with four collections in five years in which Vietnam recedes, replaced by increased attention to family relationships and southwestern scenes and culture. The ironic detachment of Caliban in Blue, and Other Poems erodes: The voice becomes more engaged, less critical, more forgiving of the human condition; literary allusions grow less frequent and less schoolish, more casually effective; the vignettes gain narrative continuity; the voice seems more aware of joy.

Burning the Fence

Burning the Fence culminates this transition, in that it establishes the trajectory of craft and theme that McDonald’s later work would follow. All his “regions” are here: family, the mountains, flying, Texas, and Vietnam. Most important, however, Burning the Fence highlights a sophisticated merging of the physical and spiritual. “Tornado Alley,” a poem ostensibly about a family’s yearly storm preparations, becomes in its final line —“We search the sky. There’s time”—a comment on the fragile comfort humans take in putting off death. “First Solo” warns a new pilot, “Give everything you have to the runway./ You will have all night to dream,” clearly a statement about how to live one’s life as much as how to land one’s plane. Finally, the collection’s title poem features a quasi-personified fence doing its best to resist burning. As the flames “waver within cracks” and the posts “hold in their flames,” the fence is “unwilling to stop being fence,” just as humans resist their own material and temporal limitations.

Hardscrabble country of Texas

By the early 1980’s, McDonald had mastered his method and charted his regions, the most frequented of which is the Texas hardscrabble country. Hundreds of his poems not only portray the region’s countryside and culture but also exploit its metaphoric richness. By attending to everyday particulars, McDonald discovers its grandeur as well, portraying what critic Michael Hobbes has called the poet’s “hardscrabble sublime.” His apparently simple vignettes of common tasks consistently suggest truths about how to be human in a difficult world—Texas or elsewhere.

That often means acting on faith. In “Starting a Pasture” (from Rafting the Brazos), the narrator, against common sense and in spite of the real or imagined jeers of his neighbors, fences a new pasture in dry cotton country. The poem is at once a self-deprecating monologue and a testament to the stubbornness necessary to exist in a harsh environment. “Living on Buried Water” (from After the Noise of Saigon) portrays similar determination, lightened by persistent faith. The arid conditions naturally trigger poems about finding wells—often by “Witching with sycamore.” “Sometimes a twig drags down to water,” the speaker tells us, “and we risk digging.” “We haven’t found it,” he confesses, but ends with an affirmation: “we believe it’s here.”

In “Digging for Buried Water” (from The Flying Dutchman), the narrator has risked shoveling a well and has struck water, resulting in a near-religious ecstasy. At the signs of success, the diggers begin scooping “like a rescue team in a cave-in/ delirious, convinced we hear tapping.” “Rigging the Windmill” (from Witching on Hardscrabble) relates the story of a narrator whose labor has been successful, but its difficulty has suggested questions both practical and theological. He wonders “how many cows/ it will water, how many angels dance/ in whirlwind, how many times/ a pump goes around before breaking.” “Wind and Hardscrabble” (from The Flying Dutchman) further reflects on the tenuous life. Only the cattle, untroubled by human doubt, do not worry the brutal heat—so long as the wind keeps turning the windmill’s blades. The final image is one of Canaan-like abundance:

Parched, they wade still pasturesshimmering in heat wavesand muzzle deep in stock tanksfilled and overflowing.

Cattle may not realize the fragility of life, but cattlemen do. “The Witness of Dry Plains” (from Rafting the Brazos) portrays an arid world in which “a hawk rises high in the heavens,” sees a rabbit, and dives, “wings stiff and wide, totally silent.” McDonald often refers to nature “red in tooth and claw,” but that situation is, it would seem, part of the sublimity. The death of the rabbit and the salvation of the hawk are a single act—a part of that balance in which humans are not simply observers but participants: “All is as it will be, in a desert./ Even the trees are balanced.”

It takes a determination to stay. According to “Living on Open Plains” (from Rafting the Brazos), the only source of water, the Ogallala water table, is dropping three feet every year, but the narrator has no intention of leaving. Looking out into the dark evening, he claims, “wherever others on the road a mile away/ are going, we are here.” To live on hardscrabble, people must be willing to accept “whatever the wind delivers.” In the poem by that title (from The Flying Dutchman and the later Whatever the Wind Delivers), the narrator and his wife accept the dust, “the earth we live on, the dust our fingers/ string new fences on, holding each other/ one more night with loving words.”


McDonald has returned to his “flying” region throughout his career, often with vignettes that find power simply in their clear telling of a story. In “Ejecting from Jets” (from Night Landings), Kirk, the pilot, has become inverted and ejected “downward like a dart.” In a flatly stated but horrific final image, his head is found crushed in his helmet, and “under the burned fuselage,/ the bones of his hand/ squeezing...

(The entire section is 2935 words.)