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Macdonald, Cynthia

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Macdonald is an American poet. She often employs grotesque imagery in her exploration of the pain and humor of life.

Chad Walsh

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 145

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.

Robert Pinsky

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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.

Stanley Poss

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[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.

Elizabeth Stone

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 777

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 her mother's cancerous dying and death. The daughter has received a phone call telling her to rush to Boston because her mother "can't last long." But the buckle has come off her shoe. The poem moves in the spaces between the smooth sequential lines of the "Buckle My Shoe" nursery rhyme and the daughter's terse, angry, grieved recollections as she attempts—still cast as her mother's bumbling daughter—to sew the buckle on. The tinkle jingle innocence illuminates the daughter's vulnerability and, by contrast, her rage…. There's more anger still for a mother who was never a mother hen, never "a nest of softness," but a glimmer of understanding (maybe compassion to be retrieved later?) when the daughter says as an afterthought her mother "could not be."

By the poem's end what's been laid to rest is an old conviction that the women are opposites. Travelling the peculiar and elliptical logic of association, the poem discovers that dead means late means not on time. Her mother was often late; this time the daughter may be. And so by the closing lines, the two voices begin to transform in front of our eyes—not into a flower, but into a single adult voice planted in the present:

            The rhyme is over.
            We must leave the nursery
            But we are afraid.
            I hold her, eighty pounds in my arms,
            Becoming her mother and my own.

In this collection, Macdonald explores richer and more ambiguous emotional terrain—in the process giving life to a whole family (late of Winesburg, I think)—in a group of 10 sad and comic poems called "The Dr. Dimity Poems." The family includes the Doctor, his wife, Dorothy, and Daisy. Mrs. Dimity is in despair (her outlet being overeating and/or oversalting the soup), despite the fact that "Her bisque is so delicious/She was named bisque cook of the month." She is occasionally silly; her pain is very real. Dr. Dimity gets metaphysical migraines and ruminates about his one major (unnamed) flaw, which he says is what keeps his marriage together. But it doesn't, because eventually Mrs. D. leaves her husband and quits cooking soup. Who gets custody of the kids? It's not clear, but probably Dr. Dimity because in the last poem, Dorothy sits in the drawing room trying to figure what to do about her father's fervent advances.

The Dimitys have the genes for cartoon grotesqueness shared by Cynthia Macdonald's earlier nameless characters. Yet there's new vigor here: This is the time of Transplants and not Amputations. All her people and all her voices are more substantial, more complicated—the targets of her wit, yes, but also the recipients of her compassion.

Elizabeth Stone, "Hearts in the Air," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1976), December 20, 1976, p. 106.

Robert Holland

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 472

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 pain, it keeps her … a distance from love as well. The humor that saves A Suspense Story by making it generous fails to materialize in far too many poems.

Other poems, like Getting to the End and Accomplishments, fail because they are clichéd in their very conception, written out of tired and predictable formulae…. (pp. 289-90)

However, a more accomplished and subtle voice, a stronger, quieter, and less compulsive one, can be found in this book, in poems like The Stained Glass Man and, especially, Direction. The former is a dramatic monologue about a Dresden stained-glass artisan. Framed as a letter, it is constructed, appropriately, like a stained-glass window out of a mosaic of correspondence, conversation, and private meditation, and it reminds me of some of Richard Howard's best monologues. The latter poem, Direction, is spoken by a woman being led into the darkness and uncertainty of a love affair by a man seducing her with quail's eggs. Full of gentle wordplay and controlled yet full emotion, it shows what Macdonald is capable of when she loosens her grip on her mask…. If Macdonald would leave the cynicism and gimmicks behind and develop this voice, along with more masks for her grotesque gallery, she would be a wise fool indeed. (p. 290)

Robert Holland, in Poetry (© 1977 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), February, 1977.

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Macdonald, Cynthia (Vol. 19)