J. D. McClatchy is known for brilliant, lyrical poems that contemplate the relationship between body and soul and the difficulty of knowing oneself. Born in 1945 in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, he was early attracted to both poetry and music; a librettist as well as a poet, he has produced work that demonstrates his love of music and his careful attention to sound. Mercury Dressing is McClatchy’s sixth book of poetry; he has also written three collections of prose. This latest collection showcases his technical agility, as well as his thematic preoccupations.
McClatchy’s previous poetry has been celebrated by critics for its stylistic verve and subtlety; his complex, layered poems require multiple readings to yield their meanings. He describes events, real and imagined, as freighted with ambivalent attitudes and sometimes contradictory symbolic values, but his writing is always graceful and clear. A few critics have objected to this very lyricism, finding the virtuosity of the language at odds with its suitability to communicate complex themes and subtle emotions. McClatchy himself is a critic of contemporary poetry and has written a collection of essays rejecting teaching techniques popular in poetry workshops. On the one hand, he derides extreme postmodern techniques, and, on the other hand, he rejects a tendency toward bland realism. He opposes his own ideal of poetry to these two extremes: “I have wanted to write poems with shape and a rich sound, with ideas and a good deal of ’speech,’ with epigrammatic surfaces and resounding depths.”
McClatchy’s essay collection White Paper: On Contemporary American Poetry appeared in 1989. His poetry then and now illustrates the fulfillment of his goals. His poems are shaped not only for the ear but also for the eye, and they are good to listen to for their sound-echoings and other felicities of language. They are quiet in tone but express banked passion. They are poems of ideas as well, often expressing speculations and conclusions through myth. Only a few contemporary poets provide lines that stick in the mind for quotation, but McClatchy is one of them.
Mercury Dressing is divided into three parts; the first begins with the title poem and the last, with “Mercury Descending.” The enigmatic figure of the Roman winged messenger god thus presides over a collection of poems that are strangely both personal and impersonal at once, as the poet-speaker speaks through and to other real and fictional figures. Mercury is god, muse, and warning. The pair of poems that bear his name allows the figure of the messenger god to hover over the area of McClatchy’s explorations as he does over Athens in Ovid.
The poems in the first section create unusual personae and narrate complicated stories. They take side glimpses at myth, legend, and history and develop them in flexible blank verse and other forms. The longer poems explore desire and discontent within the slight framework of a myth or tale. These poems are the sort that contain sudden, memorable insights that can catch readers’ minds and hearts as they journey through the narrative. Such a poem is “Sorrow in 1944,” which tells the story of Frank Pinkerton, the grown child of the title character of Giacomo Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly (1904).
The poem’s narrator, Frank has grown up in his father’s home, being raised by his father’s American wife after his mother’s suicide. He has followed his father’s pattern by falling in love with a Japanese American woman in an internment camp. He visits his beloved in the camp, where her presence somehow consoles him about his own tragic history. Snippets of Japanese myth lace their love story. The poem is a sonnet sequence, but now and then a rhymed tanka replaces the closing couplet. The narrative allows the poet to present a complex understanding of love and loss, and the extension of the familiar story provides readers with opportunities for both recognition and discovery. A note reminds readers of the title’s double meaning: McClatchy explains that “’Sorrow’ is the name Cio-Cio San gives to her child by Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton inMadama Butterfly.” This poem in particular demands rereading for its exquisite language as well as its story.
The collection’s central section is short and miscellaneous in content, but its longest poem represents an interesting...
(The entire section is 1814 words.)