Each in a Place Apart

by James McMichael

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2504

Those who have been fortunate enough to have had James McMichael as a teacher have been told that in the free verse of contemporary poetry, the poet must invent the musical cadence with which his or her meaning is played. This, McMichael might say, makes it harder than writing in predetermined forms. This, he might also say, puts the responsibility on individual poets to create those cadences with their syntax and lines so their readers hear the music they intend when they write. Within such a framework, so much depends on tone, on the ear with which people hear the poetry they read. McMichael would say that is the poet’s responsibility, that his line should create that tone, down to the slightest nuance of emphasis. Even the title of this book, Each in a Place Apart, is a terse syntactical and tonal puzzle, an encapsulation that is both intricate and precise, indicating that other people’s experience of what we share with them is almost always outside of our own, and although we think it is otherwise, we are always surprised to realize our misinterpretation and subsequent emotional isolation.

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As Frank Bidart writes in a blurb on the back cover, the book is a long poem, “a narrative about the genesis and dissolution of [McMichael’s] second marriage.” While there is all the tension of plot and situation that create a good narrative in a psychological style that, if it were a novel, could be equated with the scope and brilliant focus of someone like Henry James or James Joyce or John Fowles, the pieces of this narrative are not chapters, but single poems in the best vein of what free verse can offer. At the same time, they spring one from the other as a single story line, instead of being juxtaposed against one another, as in a collection of separate, more strictly lyric poems. They are lyric in the best and most fundamental sense of that term: they focus on feeling and encapsulate particular moment, using memory as a vehicle for a personal voice that is, contrary to Bidart’s observation, confessional: It confesses “we read each other wrong”; “we made mistakes we did not know we were making.” Such confessions are ones most readers live with as well, and so they do not impose intimacy with the poet’s voice, but rather invite it.

The first of five sections in this narrative forms a personal family history that powerfully sets up the emotional landscape of the poems that follow. Since each poem in the collection arises out of the one that precedes it, reading the first poem closely and artfully is the key to unpacking meaning in the rest of the poems. By doing so, readers will have a guide to proceed through the longer and more complex poems that build on such a foundation. McMichael gives his readers cues, stitched seamlessly into the poem itself, that direct their reading of the emotional disposition so important to the narrative unfolding in each of the following poems. As readers follow the enjambment from the end of the second into the third line, they get an unmistakable cue about how important syntax is to interpretation. The sentence reads, “It meant/ I’d wear as a bandolier over my white T-shirt a red cotton sash.” Informationally, this is a detail that fleshes out the importance of getting enough votes to be squad leader, facts that are given in the first two lines in simple declarative structures, made almost offhand by the contraction in “I’d gotten enough votes.” Readers settle into this clarity almost instantly. It gives the air of trust needed to believe the speaker. By the third line, however, the syntax has turned a sharp curve. If the third sentence were written in the same declarative voice in which the first two sentences are written, it would read, “It meant I’d wear a red cotton sash as a bandolier over my white T-shirt.” Why not keep the simple declarative statements of the speaker’s boyhood memory? What “boy” would twist his syntax to read in such a way? This is McMichael’s way of reminding readers that this is no boy speaking these lines, but a man looking back and resting on the detail of the red cotton sash by having it come last to emphasize that these statements arise out of a reverie remembered subjectively.

In terms of structure, twisting the syntax in that way is characteristic of how McMichael transforms sentences into lines. Without that twist, readers would not experience the enjambment that “snaps” the red cotton sash back against the seamlessly elastic “I’d wear as a bandolier over my white T-shirt.” Moreover, readers need it so much as a piece of grammatical and factual information by the time they get to it, that they almost do not notice it is also quite powerful as an image of emotional confidence that gets transformed into shocked vulnerability at the “bottom” of the poem. This is what McMichael does most often with such images. Instead of showcasing them, he nearly hides them, so that like shadows and sunlight, structure of syntax becomes structure of line, and point of information becomes resonating image.

This oblique approach is comprehensive and essential to grasping the book’s emotional center. Very clearly, this first poem is about the shattering news of his mother’s death, made more shattering by the way in which it is revealed. Yet the title “mother” is never used. She is referred to simply as “she.” Her absence is made more powerful and acute by this grammatical intimacy. The father and son share this “she”—in fact their closeness to each other seems almost entirely predicated on the presence of this “she” in their lives. Yet their understanding of what constitutes “better” for her is diametrically opposed. The shocked dislocation for the speaker that becomes a fundamental tenet of loving occurs when a single phrase, “she’s better,” is interpreted as differently as is possible in such a situation. The son hears it to mean: She must be recovering—maybe she will be coming home soon. The father means by saying it: She is dead, and that means she does not have to suffer anymore. The father understands something as “better” that is the worst possible scenario for the boy, even as he discovers his understanding of “she’s better” is “wrong.” The only possible comfort here is physical—at least he can sit on his father’s lap while realizing he has misunderstood in the most blaring way imaginable. Such a jarring disjunction between the physical need for comfort and love and the emotional interpretation of words and the motivation behind them is the “square root” of the book.

Yet the poetry’s algebra of emotion is not as simplistic as merely multiplying despair or disconnectedness in exponential ripples. There is a trigonometric relation between poems, a y-axis and an x-axis creating a single graph or function. One of the best examples of such inverse motion is the poem that begins “Three years not so much of squabbles as of routine.” Although it comes close to the end of the narrative, it begins in the same declarative way as the very first poem and is, as such, even more transparent. The first six lines of this poem are entirely uncomplicated syntax, a tactic sustained for twice as long as the opening poem. The syntax does not actually turn its characteristic twist until the ninth line, when the news about the death of the speaker’s father is delivered. In this dialectical opposite to the first poem, the “her” (rather than the “she”) is Linda, the speaker’s second wife, who does give comfort in words, does, for that instant, provide connection in what he beautifully articulates as “the fathomless spare nurturing/ ‘O Jimmie’/ which I still hear in anything she says.” While there simply is not a more stark contrast to “She is better. This is better,” in the whole book, it is also, in a subtle way, its inverse companion. The “still” in the last line of the later poem lets us know this deliberate comforting on Linda’s part is a thing of the past, something he still hears in whatever she is saying, in contrast to the immediacy of the memory described in the first poem. So while this poem differs in that it tells us comforting words are possible, it also reinforces disjunction by subtly reminding us, again through grammar and syntax, that the speaker is making his separate (and perhaps idiosyncratic) connection to these comforting words by merely hearing the sound of Linda’s voice, even if she has not actually spoken such words for years.

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This poem falls in the fifth and last section of the book, which is characterized by even more parched, jagged, syntactic structures, as in the poems that begin “I want her sense of me to be wrong” and “She likes to be out.” Yet these poems, and the one that precedes them that begins, “As he often does when Linda holds him,” share a water-rich language (“languidly,” “fathomless”) that balances and deepens the outcome of the book, and roots the disjunction so fundamental to understanding the poems in the swamps of familial history rather than in strictly marital dynamics, which are themselves formed by such history. The baby’s finger game is described “languidly” and then more overtly when readers are told, “If he could make my fingers fit him as her water,/ if my fingers were her water, it would always have been/ his doing to have left it there, to have taken it away.” Here, the emotional will with which humans substitute one reality for another is seen through a sleepy, mesmerizing, almost whimsical film, with the father granting the son the right to create such a world for himself. There is perhaps no more generous move made in any of the poems.

The other water word used to describe the phrase “O Jimmie” is “fathomless,” obliquely recalling the image of the illusive trout in the high lake near the Inconsolable Mountains, and contrasting with the speaker’s youthful but hypothetical assurance he knew exactly where they were:

It was easy for me to translate into any equal
volume of water the air inside the tall green
handball court walls. Each was somewhere in a given cube.
The water touched their noses, it touched their sides. Hungry,
beautiful, and secret, they held to the beryl half-light,
the sunken boulders opaline and faint.

This beautifully mysterious description of tracking the trout hidden somewhere inside the lake by imagining them inside using reference points from another setting relays poignantly how humans try to measure with what they know in their bodies, the truths of the heart they cannot ever completely “fathom.”

As in the trout poem just quoted, the whole narrative provides readers with a rich terrain of settings and atmospheres, both hypothetical and actual, which form a rich backdrop to the narrative of the love affair and marriage. With the couple, readers travel to and feel the mood evoked by beachside apartments of Southern California, remote mountains in Idaho, a village in Switzerland, the English countryside, the bedroom in a small apartment in the middle of the night, or the medicine chest and its mirror in a suburban bathroom. In every case, these places are described in achingly beautiful and often intimate terms, as in the following excerpt, which takes place in Laguna Beach, California:

I meet her at the Tic-Toc Market. My apartment’s
little more than the bed, and we can’t wait.
Safe-harbored, whispering, with always more to tell,
we stay put, the dark catching up with us each week
until it’s there in our first hour. From upstairs,
the muffled after-dinner clatter. Somebody’s phone.

Later on, nearly dead-center in the narrative, is the only poem in which readers are taken completely into another situation, that of a hypothetical English couple living in another time-frame, whose story is meant to comment on the circumstances of the speaker and his second wife. Readers learn, by way of an explanation as oblique as the syntactical puzzle it is wrapped in, that “For as many/ hours as all its parts are by themselves,/ setting is the chance that something good might happen./ It’s entire for that time, no person’s there to see as/ different and overt the single gateposts, single/ free and leasehold fields.”

The most detailed descriptions of setting are also the most abstract. They are hypothetical, like the souls “unconsulted” and “wet” outside of birth, or, as the speaker confesses, the environment of “the man [he] saw this week [he] fear[s] she’d like.” Yet from the emotions evoked or at least implied by the spinning of such hypothetical scenes, the speaker decides to leave his wife.

An intricate image of water in the hypothetical landscapes just mentioned as “tight channeled in the iris rills, then underground” provides a bridge of metaphor connecting the couple’s reunion and lovemaking with what might have been but was not in the lives of the hypothetical coupe. Thus, by a rare juxtaposition, readers are shown that sexual desire left unconsummated, wrongly discovered, and consequently denied is not their fate, is poignantly and acutely not the reason they could not stay together. This dense but brilliant axis in the middle of the narrative puts readers on the painful road to the end of the book, at which the speaker is, for all practical purposes, divorced, standing at the door to what was once his house, waiting to pick up his son. As he is remembering “the most forgettable of their outings [as a married couple],” he comes to this realization, which burns a trail back to the sparks flared in the first poem: “I wasn’t thinking, at the time, how I/ fit into what she cared about: she fit for me. It comes/ back to me now because I have to change it, I’d/ gotten it wrong.” Such a confession marks the clarity of tone that makes every line in this book worth savoring.

Perhaps more than any other poet writing, McMichael teaches readers what free verse has to offer, and what it must do to be essentially “free.” It cannot apologize for itself, hanging limply line by line, relying on the ghost music of predetermined meter. Instead it must notate the individual music of the poet’s voice with an excellence that compels the singularity of that voice to be heard and understood as itself by those who read it. The clear and fathomless quality of Each in a Place Apart allows each reader to find an undiscovered depth—both in terms of how it fits together as a single narrative as well as in the lyric immediacy of each poem.

Source for Further Study

Publishers Weekly. CCXLI, March 28, 1994, p. 91.

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