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.
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...
(The entire section is 2504 words.)