Review of Evensong by Janet McCann.
Read online review by Janet McCann, in Valparaiso Poetry Review, Volume XIII, Number 2: Spring-Summer 2012
Sample poem from Evensong
Three More Poems from Evensong: "On the Nature of Touch," "Benediction," "After a Class in Seaweed"
On the Nature of Touch
My daughter's cat in the morning, before he'll eat,
needs to be picked up and petted, cradled (as I used to
carry my daughter) on one hip from pantry to counter
and back to the dish of food that was fresh the first
time he sniffed it, but not good enough.
This cat can be roaming all night, returning ravenous.
This cat can be let outside at first light and stand, moon-
patient, at the door, in rain, until we rise again. His fur
can be six soggy layers of needles and moss on the floor of the Oregon
coast range and still the Salmon Supreme we spoon into his dish
holds that scrupulous tongue only an instant before his voice
stalks our slippers, our wonder again at such
hunger for touch that goes beyond all bodily need.
So we stroke him between the ears, stirring up the same food.
And we rub his nose just over the spot where the whiskers sprout,
run our hands repeatedly down the long rapids of his spine
until dander and fur rise like spume, drift in the imperceptible
breath of the furnace, saying Good cat, Good Pillow, Eat.
And my daughter, who hardly could wait to be out on her own,
phones from her student apartment once, maybe twice a day, to ask for my
stroganoff recipe, or if vinegar will, in the absence of cleanser,
clean a greasy sink. She reads me the funnies.
Will I give her a ride to the store? Each day, this
delicate sniffing the ground called home; the words we speak
a ritual independent of meaning: thin fingers sifting the rich
humus of memory: bright
splashes of hair dye she left behind
on the downstairs hall carpet, each color a different
year of her life: stones scattered by Gretel to find the way back.
There is no returning to where she has been. How can I
not cradle her; each time she calls, one more blessed
delay on the long, slow road from touching each of us took
for granted those years I held her in my arms at least once a day
and she held me in a gaze that knew nothing but trust: water
disappearing through cracks in my fingers I myself tried, as a child,
over and over to cup and drink clear in my small, close hands.
First published in Ms. magazine
As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be
Because I’d once been told what women always had done – though never
how, or why – after you died, the last tube taken out and gone,
and they offered to leave us alone, I asked if I could wash you.
The soapy water was warm, as you were, still, and soft. The basin was round.
The towels and wash cloths thick and white. And there was no strangeness in it,
really. And I didn’t cry, and that, too, was part of the wonder.
I began with one smooth, pliant arm. As once you daily must have done with me,
as once you must have done at your own mother’s death, I carefully dipped one cloth,
and carefully wrung it, and carefully bathed the whole freckled length of your arm,
your docile hand, each finger light in its yielding.
And though you had no choice in acquiescing to my love, I did not
revel in my power, but slowly lifted, washed and patted dry each limb, in turn,
your crooked toes and in between the toes; your shoulders, breasts,
the secret folds between your legs, thin pubic hairs, and with a different cloth,
which would have been your way, your face.
I took my time. I lingered in this unexpected absence of condition or demand.
And when at last with nothing more to do, I sat beside your bed and took
the hand I’d long since lost the need to hold, and laid my grown-up hand inside:
Oh, familiar shape my fingers knew by heart and had forgotten
that they’d ever known. How long this total rightness had been gone.
And, as leisurely as once I must have done, when simple being was enough
to please you, I let my eyes, without distraction, wander every
tiny detail of your face, its astonishing calm. I saw again your chin,
unguarded; saw your knuckles worn, arthritic; sang a tune that came
from who knows where: This is the hand that fed me,
Hand that held me, Hand that punished me, Hand that led me.
For hours, sunlight was the only thing that moved. And soon
would be gone. And your hand in mine, still warm!
I stood to kiss your forehead. It was cold. But I had been
in the presence of holiness. World without end. And was done.
First published in Prairie Schooner
After a Class in Seaweed
These names like exotic diseases – Alaria, Porphyra,
Fucus – or terms transmitted from darkrooms (try
Iridia, try Laminaria), Still, it’s hard to
imagine our world’s future food supply
blessed with names like Bull Whip Kelp, though
that’s what it looks like, and history shows
Maiden’s Hair is poisonous, leaving us
(if we stick with the representational) Sea
Palm and Lettuce – high in iron, potassium,
iodine, protein, you name it – and once you see
how good they can taste, who knows, you might
impress your friends with your daring, you might
start a new trend. Believe me, these new scientist
cooks know what they’re up to. Last week I stir-fried
some kind of algae with onions, green peppers, garlic
and soy sauce. Forgot it wasn’t spinach. Tried
Porphyra chips with salsa, disguising an aftertaste
clinging like limpets, like shriveled up slug trails
that don’t wash off. Anything’s possible. Like
tonight, the casserole I took to the potluck
full of Sea Palms everyone took to be diced
black olives (smothered with hamburger, tucked
into a sauce of tomato and cheddar). Like finding
good intentions not only tricking the tongue, but blinding.
First published in No More Masks! An Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Women Poets, Florence Howe, ed. NY: HarperCollins
Andover Review, “Found Poem: Spelling Test, Grade 3, My Own"
Anthropology and Humanism, “Reserve”
Calapooya Collage, “Ashes on the Tongue,” “Maybe More Than We Know,” “On One of the Lesser-Acclaimed Functions of Swearing,” “Lesson Plans, Vernal, Utah,” “With Ninety-Eight Friends”
Calapooya, “Some Words to Toss Your Direction,”
Chili Verde Review, “Losing in the Mail My Years-Old Copy of Your Specially-Autographed Book”
CutBank,“On the Nature of Bach’s B Minor Mass”
Ellipsis, “Beyond Argument,” “Likeness"
Fireweed, “Mother’s Day, Ellensburg, Washington,”
Hubbub, “The Fisherman’s Wife”
KSOR Guide to the Arts, “Fan Letter from the Fourth Grade”
Massachusetts Review, “Poem at Forty-Five”
Mississippi Mud, “The Way It Was”
Ms., “On the Nature of Touch”
National Poetry Review, “Repartee”
Nimrod, “And the Greatest of These”
Oregon Quarterly, “Tiramisù”
Poet & Critic, “All We Can Use”
Prairie Schooner, “Benediction”
Painted Hills Quarterly, “This Is His Story”
The Pacific, “Doors”
Tehachapi Review, “Coleus”
Valparaiso Poetry Review, “The Keeper of Secrets,” “Armistice”
Weber Studies, “Fertility Plant,” “Give Us This Day,” “Silence”
“Love in Venice” first appeared as “Four Poems of Love” in Love Poems for the Media Age, an anthology edited by David Samis. Vancouver, B.C.: Ripple Effect Press.
“After a Class in Seaweed” first appeared in No More Masks! An Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Women Poets. Florence Howe, ed. New York: HarperCollins, second edition.
“Naked” appeared as “Personal Poem” in the first edition of No More Masks! An Anthology ofTwentieth-Century American Women Poets. Ellen Bass and Florence Howe, eds. New York: Doubleday.
“Sanctuary” was a finalist in the 2006 Runes Award competition.
“Benediction” was first runner-up in the 2003 Rita Dove Poetry Award,
under the title “The Blessing,” Joy Harjo, judge.
The first three sections of “A Gathering” received 2nd place in “In the Beginning Was the Word” national competition (Portland, Oregon), September 2002, under the title “For Mary.”