Cynthia Macdonald Critical Essays

Cynthia Lee


(Poets and Poetry in America)

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...

(The entire section is 1406 words.)