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.
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