By Athena Kildegaard
Recently a book came in the mail as part of a subscription; a book by an author I’d never heard of. I stood at the kitchen table and began reading. I read half of it right then and there, without even moving. The book was The Undiscovered Room by Jo McDougall (Tavern Books). I felt like a spelunker who’d discovered that room, and the room was covered in the most outrageously true and tough-minded graffiti.
McDougall published her first full-length book, The Woman in the Next Booth, when she was fifty-two. Since then, roughly every five years, she’s written another book of poems. In an essay from 1994, McDougall wrote: “Poets will write, however, audience or no, that being both their curse and their responsibility.” Fortunately, Tavern Books and the University of Arkansas Press, which has just released her collected poems, In the Home of the Famous Dead, are building a bigger audience for this poet.
Jo McDougall grew up on a rice farm in Arkansas, received a degree in home economics from the University of Arkansas, and married a rice farmer. She describes how she began writing poetry:
My mother read to me every night when I was young: poetry, fables, the Bible, fairy-tales. I wrote a poem when I was eleven or twelve and my father framed it for his desk. That was an ego-boost, of course, and probably launched my career. I wrote a few poems in high school, had some published while an undergraduate, attended writers’ conferences through the years, read lots of anthologies, and continued to publish. But I wasn’t satisfied with my work. When I heard Miller Williams and James Whitehead speak at one of those conferences, I made up my mind to study with them at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, and I received my MFA in Creative Writing there.
After receiving her MFA, McDougall went on to teach at Pittsburg State University in Kansas, and there she co-directed the creative writing program. When her daughter became ill with cancer, McDougall retired from teaching. She won the DeWitt Wallace/Reader’s Digest Writing Award, was inducted into the Arkansas Writers Hall of Fame, and has been awarded several fellowships to the MacDowell Colony, among other honors. Her poems have been made into films and a stage presentation, and they’ve been set to music. McDougall notes, “Somewhere along the way I began to see that, for better or for worse, writing, especially poetry, was my destiny.”
Fulfilling one’s destiny is not necessarily a solitary business. McDougall is generous in her praise of the role of editors in her career.
Good editors are indispensable to a writer. It’s a blessing to have editors who take the time to workshop poems with the writer, to shape the books. Miller Williams of the University of Arkansas Press, was a marvelous editor, taking the time to deal with worrisome poems until we got them right. Or abandoned them.
I had valuable help in weeding out poems and making my most recent book, The Undiscovered Room, more compact from the editors at Tavern books, Carl Adamshick and Natalie Garyet.
Her poem “Upon Hearing about the Suicide of the Daughter of Friends” is included in Garrison Keillor‘s anthology, Good Poems for Hard Times. In the contributor’s note of that anthology McDougall says this: “Southerners are more talkative and dramatic and tend to celebrate the strange. I like the strange but I’m also attracted to the stoicism of Midwestern attitudes. . . . I think living in the Midwest has influenced me to write tighter poems.” This self-assessment is helpful in thinking about McDougall’s work. She’s a Southerner with a Midwestern sensibility who loves the strange: she’s part Flannery O’Connor, part Sherwood Anderson, part Charles Simic. The first poem in her new book, The Undiscovered Room displays this crazy mélange.
“A Way with Mules”
I don’t like writing about the dead,
conjuring them in language
that some of them
never would have used—
pushing them onstage,
saying, “Go. It doesn’t have to be the truth.”
Something’s varnished about it,
all klieg lights and rouge,
all glistery shadows.
Yet, what else is there to do?
Shouldn’t you, Reader,
be led to see these glossy, passionate,
who once plowed a field in the teeth of a tornado,
waltzed with a wooden leg,
sashayed an armadillo on a leash?
Perhaps not. Perhaps you’ve already left the page,
dealing with your own ghosts,
throwing them over your shoulder like salt:
a cousin, a brother missing in action
who smoked every day a pack of Camels
and had a way with mules.
Of course, Southern writing wouldn’t be what it is without mules, preferably dead mules. Here it’s a live mule, but necessary, and funny, too—a characteristic of some of McDougall’s poetry that isn’t usually equated with Southern or Midwestern poetry. It’s that attraction to the absurd and to humor that she shares with Charles Simic. The self-effacing beginning of this poem will be familiar to anyone who has listened to A Prairie Home Companion, but the language of theater (klieg lights, rouge, glistery, glossy and passionate) shifts the tone. Ghosts, and dealing with ghosts, is a Southern concern—straight out of Faulkner and O’Connor and Tennessee Williams—but “throwing them over your shoulder like salt” is pure McDougall. And of course, the strange here provides images that will enter our dreams: someone sashaying “an armadillo on a leash,” someone plowing “in the teeth of a tornado” (talk about quintessential Calvinism, something Midwesterners and Southerners are known for).
Another quality of the Southern character—defeat— is evident in many of McDougall’s poems. She commented on this in an essay she wrote as part of the Occasional Papers of Timmons Chapel, an essay series at Pittsburg State. “Defeat, of course, enters in. The South lost the War. This ever-present awareness of defeat and guilt, laced with the stringency of Calvinism, lends a vulnerability to the Southern psyche, makes irony a necessity, and makes ironic distance a prevailing element in most Southern poems.” The poem “Choice” perfectly displays the use of ironic distance to write about vulnerability. The poem begins “You’ve come to the oncologist’s office / to talk about your options.” In the poem, the “you”—which could be understood to be McDougall’s daughter—looks at scans, and the doctor reviews the option: chemo or not. “’It’s your choice,’ he says, / closing your folder, ‘but we need to start tomorrow.’” Then the poem takes us back in time to the previous day, to a restaurant, “a different universe.” The poem ends with the waitress asking, “’Hon, you want mustard or mayo / on that sandwich?’” The ironic distance of the waitress’ question provides McDougall with a way to avoid wallowing in the dreadful choice the doctor presents.
“Choice” showcases another delight of some of McDougall’s poems: a sharp turn at the end. While many of her poems end on a potent image (a man having a way with mules), others use a final contrast or irony to shake us out of our comfort zones, to avoid sentimentality, or to play up the strange. A short poem from her 2004 book Satisfied with Havoc, “Strangers in This City Where We Have Come Seeking a Cure for Her Cancer, My Daughter and I Drive Up to the Clinic” demonstrates this strength:
A buzzard lands on the roof.
In the dusk, in my confusion,
I mistake it for a blue
heron. I call to my daughter, “Look!”
To have foisted your error on another is dreadful, but to have realized its metaphorical import is a curse, and because it’s a curse, it must be spoken, must be written down.
“Strangers” is a dark mirror to a poem from her 2001 book Dirt, “The Phenomenological World”:
As I drive by my neighbor’s yard,
a swan I’ve mistaken daily for an ornament
raises a wing.
In these two poems we can see just how nothing is lost upon McDougall. The more recent poem, like the earlier one, shows how we can mistake what we see, but it goes further by facing up to the pain that can surface in these mistakes. What is evident in the difference between these poems is the way McDougall’s poetry has grown stronger, braver. “I think there’s a blend of Midwestern terseness and Southern opulence in my work now,” McDougall says about her new book. “Opulence” can refer to an abundance of power as well as an abundance of wealth—and indeed, there’s great power in the poems of her newest book.
The poems in The Undiscovered Room are grouped into four sections. The first, “Rustling the Blinds” takes its title from the second poem of the section, “Vehicle.”
Nobody wants to be a ghost.
It’s tiresome, being noticed
but never seen.
How else can one go back, though,
to the house that was sold or burned
or rotted away—
to rustle the blinds,
startle the cat,
walk barefoot out
for the morning paper?
In this first section, McDougall rustles the blinds to notice the ghosts of her father, her grandparents, her mother, former girlfriends. She pushes this idea of noticing the ghosts to the absurd in the last poem of the section, “Seeing on the Horizon This Day My Death.” On the day she dies, the place where she lives will become a ghost town; it will be unrecognizable to her own ghost. It is, she reminds us, sometimes ghosts who rustle the blinds, and those ghosts can be us.
The second section of the book, “Important Bones,” continues her meditation on death and on grief, and in particular, her grief for her daughter. In the second of two poems titled “Talking with My Dead Daughter,” she ends “I’ve failed at grief.” Surely we all have, but how brave of McDougall to admit it. She does not end the section there, in that slightly maudlin, complaining place. She ends with this short poem, “Responsibility”:
Taking my dog for a walk,
I find four baby possums dead,
their tails curled in question marks,
their mouths eating maggots.
Soon, the April grass around the bodies,
bedazzled until now
with the lark of being grass,
will understand its office
and take them in.
I hear in the penultimate line Robert Hayden‘s “love’s austere and lonely offices” from his poem “Those Winter Sundays.” Grief’s office, I think McDougall is saying, is to take in the dead as grass will do the possums; by holding our dead in memories, we enter that ghost-world where we can notice but not see.
In the third section of the book, “Sweet Contrivances,” McDougall turns her attention outward while still holding the subject of grief close. The title comes from a terse poem that opens the section, the only poem with an epigram, which comes from Charles Bukowski: “funereal and graceful and glad.” She begins the poem “Now and again the world sends / its sweet contrivances,” and she goes on to list a few of these made things:
a ruffle of tulip,
raccoons in the attic,
the naked smell of laundry soap.
Apricots. a book’s pages after rain.
A blue beetle
fastening a jacket.
The sheer simplicity and musical beauty of this list belie the way the poem, titled “Ruffles and Flourishes,” brings together the funereal with the graceful—just as the buzzard became a heron, just as the baby possums eat maggots.
In the final section of the book, McDougall welcomes into the poems animals: fox, coyotes and rabbits, frogs and an owl, sparrows, deer, a wasp. Of the fox she says, “Then he might have nodded to me; / I might have joined him”; the sparrow bangs against the ceiling of an airport, while below the humans who wait in line to board are “begrudging this transport from earth”; the deer, in her poem “Ambition, Late Life,” are “lifting their heads, / then bowing to the grass.” We can learn from the animals, because their actions scold us, or because they model for us ways to be, or because we see in them, as McDougall does the fox, a kind of fellowship, a commonality.
In this section, too, McDougall continues her meditation on memory. Early in the section the speaker of a poem addresses the past: “you roam the halls / like a fog of cholera.” In a later poem the speaker observes a woman through a window and declares that this woman “is consigned . . . to drift in and out / the long faults of my memory.” While the earlier poem treats memory as something utterly undesirable, in this later poem McDougall is more circumspect. “Fault” can mean error or deficiency, but it also echoes fault lines, those edges of tectonic plates. And she’s punning on “memory vault,” hearkening back to a poem from the first section, titled “Memory, So Sleek and Practiced,” which ends “Then earthquake, tornado, tsunami, / as memory brings me you, / bright and smoldering as a caesar.” The dead return in memories as ghosts with the destructive power of earthquakes—on the edges of fault lines—and with the opulence of a caesar.
Mourning and memorialization are an unavoidable, even desirable, subject for a poet, but the challenge is to write without becoming maudlin or sentimental or easy. In that challenge lie both the responsibility and the curse of writing poetry. McDougall answers this curse in The Undiscovered Room by thinking of the dead as ghosts. We can rustle the blinds to find those ghosts. But in order to truly reach them, write about them, and write about the places they frequented, houses “sold or burned or rotted away,” we ourselves must be ghosts: we must be noticed but not seen.
And yet, memory of those loved ones is faulty. How to balance that fault? McDougall supplies an epigraph for the whole book, a line from E. E. Cummings: “love is more thicker than forget.” His whole poem is worth returning to. Whatever faults lie in our memories, whatever failures we might experience in our grief, love is thicker. Though, McDougall will remind us, love, too, has its faults:
“A Man Considers the Ways of Love”
He removes a toy
from the wood floor
so the floor will not have to endure it.
Removes a rug
lest an old woman topple.
Extracts the fish bone
before the unsuspecting diner lifts his fork.
Turns away from music
so silence might have him in thrall.
Thinks of cows,
well fed, well grazed,
the care we give
those we have sentenced to fall.
We may fail at grief, we may sentence others to fall, but we can commit acts of love, no matter how big, no matter how small. Herein is the opulence that McDougall employs to lift us out of grief and loss and the haunting of ghosts and into the possibility of being more human.
Photocredit: PhoTones Works via photopin (licensed)