The title of Robert McNamara’s book—Incomplete Strangers—recalls the name wily Odysseus gives Polyphemus—he is, he says, “No-Man.” For McNamara, we are “incomplete strangers,” never entirely strangers and never complete beings, ever journeying out and back for images to fill the holes we can never patch. McNamara’s poems are about how we experience those recurrent moments, how we recognize ourselves as avatars of the permanent, what that feels like, the prosody and measure of it, its sixes and sevens, how we marshal our experience, our desire for perfection, and then launch into the rain, knowing it’s all temporary, knowing the fathers we learned from in the Eden of New York City when men who took their boys on Saturdays to museums to encourage their imaginations have at last burnt out, muttering curses into subways, knowing that we had to surpass them even as in our dreams we longed for them to call us from whatever dying beds for one last reminder of how sweet, how contingent, how temporary they are and everything around us is, even our gods, even the language we would like to think is immortal and through which we think we can claim immortality for ourselves and those we love and those we lost. The crowning climax of the book is a sequence of “Skeptical Psalms,” a fugue on the old questions, wherein we try to understand what evil is . . . addressing that something more than us to which we speak as “You,” as “Lord,” as “God,” as “You, here, as long as I speak of you” and to which we do not need to speak when the radiance of things, “what shines and gleams,” “all flashes and specks,” as in a pied poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, comes out of hiding as the greengrocer tears off the dross under Roman skies of artichokes like a genius editor and baptizes the lettuce in a Bernini fountain before setting them like chapters in the racks of her stall for all to marvel at. All those delicacies and more await you. Open the book.
Robert McNamara’s poetry is crisp and formal, and attached to the world in the way very lively humans are who are both deeply sad, because they are here, and aware of those salvational voices tucked away in the brilliance of things. Fortunately this poetry is erudite, so the present doesn’t have to do all the heavy work—of supporting a true and wise adult on its shoulders. Read at your peril, and be lucky! This is a tremendous feast.
About the Author
Robert McNamara was born in New York City in 1950. He has published two previous books of poetry, Second Messengers (Wesleyan) and The Body & the Day (David Robert Books), as well as a translation of selected poems by the Bengali poet Sarat Kumar Mukhopadhyay, The Cat Under the Stairs (Eastern Washington University Press). He has been awarded a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and a Fulbright Fellowship for language study and cultural exchange in Calcutta. The founder and editor of L’Epervier Press, McNamara teaches in the Interdisciplinary Writing Program at the University of Washington, where he is the University Director of the Puget Sound Writing Project.
A poem by Robert McNamara featured on Montana Public Radio
Review: David Rigsbee in The Cortland Review
David Rigsbee is the author of School of the Americas (2012) from Black Lawrence Press and the recipient of a 2013 Fellowship in Poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts. He is contributing editor for The Cortland Review.
Incomplete Strangers poems by Robert McNamara
Lost Horse Press
Pause and reflect. It's one of the things poets do, at least some of the time. The pause establishes a meditative space more or less atemporal (or so it would like), and the reflection gives words to intimations, which is to say, it images private, often fugitive and contingent states and fills out (or in) their connections and implications. It's what it's like, truth be told, being me standing in front of you: the I-you glows with possibility. The quiet that meditation almost always suggests precedes and conditions utterance. But outside of the church and the yoga studio, quiet is a dwindling commodity. The you-can't-get-there-from-here extends from the sensitive poet to the distracted reader. Robert McNamara's Incomplete Strangers is not the sort of collection you would read on the subway (I know: I tried it), though poets whose wheels are greased with irony, from David Kirby to Billy Collins, would do just fine, thank you. Nor is it the Jorie Graham all-querying method of grappling with complexity, where everything in its gnarly rebarbativeness is incoming and plain understatement the refuge of naifs. That, too, is meditation (though the poems are less acts than actions).
McNamara's poems take up familiar but pressing matters: family and memory, travel and place, both the deep and the immediate past, both culture and domesticity, widely construed. They are also religious, taking orthodoxy head-on and declining to lapse into mere spirituality. The meditations occasioned by his religious temperament, although the permeate the collection, come to a coda at the end of the collection, in a section called "Skeptical Psalms." They set the tone of the rest: rigorous, interested but tentative, elegiac, aware, careful to avoid being taken in. There are no declarations here that would qualify as belief in the conventional sense, no genuflecting or subscribing to dogma. In one of several references to St. Augustine, he stands askance at his disbelief and in another hopes that his eventual acceptance (which is more like an acquiescence) may be delayed so as to reaffirm his allegiance to the mortal coil. How you get from that (the mortal coil) to something beyond that will put paid to the struggle to reconcile questions (of which there are no end) with silence (which provides no answers) is the problem. Having said that, poets are best when they question. Who needs an answer when questions are not only the metier but the essence and lot of our contingent natures? We want closure at the same time that we recognize that what is closed is us, and we want freedom, the freedom to spray existence with questions, for example, at the same time we see that our questions disguise a fidgety sense of belonging. At least we can be true to that and to one another, as Matthew Arnold recommended, and Robert McNamara would be the last to disagree.
It gets interesting when the I-you of address involves a disabled you. It's then the province of elegy or of time capsule address, such as Yeats perfected with his poem to his daughter. The friar urged Much Ado's Claudio to "sing to [the] bones," of his beloved, who was not dead, but faking death to overhear the truth. Many of the poems here are also stylishly meant for overhearing. The collection, in fact, begins with elegy and moves toward poems about the conditions necessary for being heard at all, or for that matter, of speaking at all. He catches the right note in a villanelle, "On the #7 Train," whose first line shades ambivalence into self-evident truth and stands as emblematic ("I'm in Seattle and not, if you know what I mean."). The poet, who is in Seattle writes of his father, who isn't (but dreams of it), who is in New York. It's the difference between is and seems, an old difference, but an important one, for it is "the warp of day" but one whose resolution is elusive. Where seems was, there shall is be appears to be the binding desire, even as the poet finds himself "needing shears for the knot."
Memory in the elegy dumps its paradoxes before every poet. To be in possession of memory (itself a fiction, too, a "seems") is all by itself paradoxical: how is it that I find myself in the here and now and yet in the there and then as well?
In the fine a "The Reading Room," the poet begins with familiar recollection that quickly shades into the present:
Often on lunch hour you'd come to read or write
to me, your first-born in college, awash in angst
and earnest rebellion. Now there are guards
and sensors at the doors . . .
Several poems in the collection are stand-outs. "The Reading Room" is the first of these. Eschewing the sepia of so much urban recollection when it was possible to feel the city as a melting pot, and dads took their then-kids to museums, it settles upon the question of personal identity. As his father fades, then passes from life to afterlife, the poet tracks the shifting signs and details that maintain identity through their natural diminutives until even these pass into history, of which the art museum, is a fitting storage of souls.
Today I walked your route uptown, El Greco
at the Met, galleries thick with people
looking up, some explaining in hushed
voices—not library quiet, but almost—
the rows of saintly heads mounted on
pyramids of pastel cloth covering
too-solid flesh. Already begun their final
sublimation. Even the Inquisitor's hands
are white-knuckled on his chair.
Although "The Reading Room" is not a poem in a hurry to frame its argument in religious terms, it manages to do so, although nothing of a doctrinal nature stains the effort. It is rather an orientation toward a beyond that, while not requiring a religious sensibility, doesn't deflect, in this case, the poet's arrow.
Many poems go south because they lean too heavily on their occasions. Indeed, they can be swallowed up by their occasions. Elegy is an exception because it presupposes a final vocabulary, with which the occasion is expanded (or bound) to include, theoretically, all that remains. Whatever that is, elegy has the priority and authority of final speech. And one doesn't stumble upon such speech: it belongs to the forms and protocols of its occasion. Now in his sixties, McManara writes poems that have learned to move among such occasions (with an eye to the one elegy no one lives to write, actually), living, as we all do, by his wits, anchored and stayed occasionally by the duty to be done with the hand-pulling of identity, to love, to contend with distress, not to mention the need to his way around and through regret. In the process he makes a case for steadied words, which is also, you might say, the case for poetry altogether. There are exceptions (song, for example), but in the main, McNamara comes by his forms with quiet intelligence, modesty, and tenderness, as befits a poet alert to the meanings of contingency.
The counter-poem to "The Reading Room" is "For My Granddaughter," which moves through time, as if it were not a medium, but rather clothing. Both poems bring past, present, and future (which bides its portion of time between hope and disquiet) into the picture. But while the former poem begins with absence, the latter begins with presence and moves toward open field. Taken together, they raise the question: which is more unknowable: past or future? And what are we to make of the nearly unavoidable realization that both reside in the present? The answer is something like this: we know a little of both, but often only enough to make us either wistful or aware that the pasts we have we have alone. Or we have trouble making commensurable with the knowledge of others, particularly in the case of family members, whose interest it is to form a more or less coherent narrative and so link our identities. It is who and how we find who and what we are, in some larger sense, that is at issue in McNamara's poems, and it is the mystery of identity that he raises to the level of religious yearning. We long to think our lives have meaning sub specie aeternitatis, though we must also be prepared, as Stevens warned us, to accept the blank as our sponsor.
It's how we're made:
not to live easily in the world we make
like this. And yet we do.
This (optimistic) uncertainty is suggested in the title. We are Incomplete Strangers, that is, partial in our connections with even those nearest us, as John Clare noted, and partial strangers to ourselves, though we crave wholeness, integrity and, thanks to language, a certain leverage, a certain say-so:
I've found more happiness in discontent,
the art of working over lines like guilty-
seeming suspects until they talk, coming
back and back as we do to a place we last
remember seeing something lost, certain
if it's anywhere it must be there.
There is perhaps some solace to be had in the thought that language allows the possibility of reverse-engineering, which was the way of the Symbolists and the proponents of natural religion. As he writes in "Mid-Winter":
Empty now the nests,
some like the flotsam left
by floods, hooked where branches
fork from trunks, others
like a philosopher's clock,
saying, through grass and hair
and leaf, I am by design,
in proportion, relation, grace,
an echo of my maker's song
A Russian Orthodox monk once asserted that Brodsky was "too intelligent to be an atheist." Well, there are shades of atheism, just as there are degrees of belief. But belief these days is often put aside in favor of notions of metaphysical awareness, regardless of whether the Wizard is in. McNamara, however, takes a harder route that lands him in the middle of an old, exquisite paradox: the desire to believe versus the harder, Stevensian notion that a mind of winter better suits our awareness of the shell games and rabbit holes of religious questing. Whatever God is, He (if I may) refuses the meeting that would clinch our satisfaction. And yet, that refusal is not without its satisfactions. We still reach, as if the reaching might put us in touch with the Transcendent, and that endless reaching both brings our isolation into clearer focus and enhances our ability to understand our own humanity. The twelve "Skeptical Psalms" sit squarely on the fence between human doubts and the specifically Biblical nomenclature of Psalms, which, as a whole, are models of praise. Butting his head against the void brings the poet to the full force of empirical skepticism:
I would rather read in a hot
bath than talk to you, who may be
But this aside, which is both snarky and natural, assures the reader of the poet's rational bona fides, even as it opens to the possibility that a hot bath and all that it implies about our momentary sequester in time and life is also a suitable détente. We can live out our lives, brief though they be, in some suitable relation to mortality, postponing, as St. Augustine wished and prayed he might, the ultimate encounter:
If I knew
that you are and that I could reach you,
that you're really there,
I might come more readily.
But not soon, not soon: our dream
for flesh to feel at home.
Why lie? Heaven can wait. Looking back on those moments when we cleave to our human-sized joys and make a point of crying in our beers, it's no wonder that this is the place for us, as Frost said. And it may be that we'll get no closer to that ultimate encounter, indeed that we will understand something else about the urge to find poetry in recognizing that we approach the divine in the formal utterance of what is finally non-sense. That too is a kind of sense, one that would please the shade of Derrida, as well as St. Augustine:
Face it, I've made
the world I've blown apart, hidden
under walnut shells. It's an old street hustle:
not here, not here. Nothing but a dance
of hands in which you disappear.
He ends the sequence, then, on a note that's frankly linguistic, and that's good enough:
"You here as long as I speak you." In other words, we're all making this up as we go. We're told that in the beginning was the word: what does it matter that the word may well have been twaddle from the real breath that powered it?
When the leaves yellow, I think of how a sun
hovered in a crisp New England sky
anointing the leaves to incandescence. How
the hillsides blazed, how we drove for hours
snaking roads licked by harmless flames,
consumed with routine sacrifice.
Daily the sun slipped west and weekly south—
Zeno’s runner arcing toward his prize.
Like any snapshot album, this one yearns:
reminds us how fine and passionate we were,
in a better world, never to be so again.
It was there, outside us, it insists:
the open scenes, the bodies that we then
belonged to, weren’t the rumors of a mind
bodying uncertainty with hope,
like funneled leaves giving a shape to wind.
And if belief was only the restlessness
of a squirrel’s tail, the complex traceries
in air, a world scripted to meaningful noise?
Days unfold like leaves, are pressed
in a book of wild guesses translating
the ongoing work. It’s a mystery
who thinks it up, holds it all in mind,
there each time we wake or turn around.
Copyright © 2013 by Robert McNamara