Almost A Remembrance: The Selected Shorter Poems of Jack McCarthy

Moon Pie Press, 2011,
75 pages, $10.00,
ISBN: 978
Buy the Book

If you’ve ever heard one of Jack McCarthy’s slam gigs (and I am fortunate enough to have done so), you’ll recognize the qualities that dominate this tome: Entertainment with a capital E, edge

with a small one. Remembrance is a virtuoso recital that demonstrates his verbal range.  Two key epigrams are placed before the table of contents.  First, there’s Keats: “Poetry should strike the reader as his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance.”  (Even Keats acknowledges the virtue of accessibility!)  This gets echoed by Nebraska’s Ted Kooser: “All I ever really wanted to do was give the regular guy something special that he didn’t expect.”  We readers are then presented with the polarities of High/Low language and culture, and rhyming vs. free verse formats.  All this is orchestrated in a playful but sometimes self excoriating tone.  The following snippet from “Poet Detained in Airport” reflects the former quality, but suggests the latter:

          The clerk asked,

          “Are you carrying anything on

          from a strange person ?

          The poet said, “Lady,

          I am a strange person.”

          . . . “Have you been leaving

          your baggage unattended ?

          . . . “Of course I have.

          That’s how it got to be

          my baggage.”

Yet this work does not lack gravitas . . . Indeed, McCarthy,

ex King of Cambridge’s Cantab Lounge, can “paint a swath” worthy of the B.U. Confessional School (Plath, Lowell) at will. In the bravura “Irish History Explained in 16 Lines: or, Did You Ever Wonder Why So Many of the Great Writers Are Irish ? ” there’s the lilt of Gaelic syntax, but its brazen first sentence bolts at the reader!  Here’s most of it:

          As anyone who’s considered being God

          will know, at Pentecost the gift was not

          of tongues, but ears.

                      Their lovely bloody language

          was the weapon did us in . . .

          They pronounced death sentences; listening,

          we heard troubadours . . .

          It wasn’t us they betrayed, but English.

          They didn’t live up to it, they were not grand

          enough, magnanimous, and now it’s ours.

          . . . because we let

          it charm us and seduce us, we own it now

          in ways they never did, and never will.

In this astounding paradox, McCarthy maintains that the Irish, who had the bloody English language thrust upon them by their persecutors from the south, actually work the English tongue better! (Subversion, anyone ?)

In his most accomplished poem, “Music Night at Boston Latin,” McCarthy owns up to being captivated by a budding beauty a girl his daughter’s age.  Despite its what could be disquieting subject matter, this poem is filled with uncommon tenderness and irony.  It begins:

          I wish I could accredit properly

          every act before my daughter’s

          group, but in all honesty, the only thing

          that sticks out in my memory

          is the left leg of the first violinist

          in the string quartet.

The penitent disclaimer (“I wish I could accredit properly”) is buffered by an arcane meaning of “accredit”: “to make creditable, or reputable; sanction.”  And “the only thing that sticks out” is another pun, lending a dose of levity.  (Note the objectification of the leg: another reason not to take this soul baring seriously ? ) McCarthy then takes us, circuitously, down the path of physics, describing how footlights met said leg:

          . . . Einstein’s theory about light bending . . .

          irrefutably demonstrated here:

          in the little sphere of glow

          that emanated from a left tibia, which,

          in casual repose, seemed slightly curved

          as space itself is curved. . . .

Yet it soon takes a turn for the darker, ending with:

          and I supposed that somewhere with

          me in the darkness sat a father thinking

          gender treacherous thoughts . . ..

                                   . . . that the boy

          had not been born and never would

          who could do justice to his radiant jewel.

          And somewhere also sat proprietary

          the music teacher . . .

          who loved her with the kind of old fashioned

          passion that would go to its grave

          without ever once becoming


McCarthy, in the course of the book, leaves behind another travail, that of “Scenes From a Marriage (very late)”: “The counselor said, / ‘I want to begin this session / by asking each of you to say / something nice about the other.’” The voice of Jack’s wife concludes the poem with these remarks:

          “When we first married

          and we’d disagree,

          I would always defer to him.

          For years I did.

          Sometimes I’d ask myself why,

          and I’d suppose it was because

          he had a fine mind,

          that he just knew

          more than I did.”

          “Now I think it’s simply because

          he speaks in complete sentences.”

Eventually, McCarthy finds contentment with “the fabulous Carol” (as described in his bio).  The quality of their late life marriage is drolly “qualified” by this Nathaniel Hawthorne quote: “We are as happy as people can be, without making themselves ridiculous, and might be even happier; but, as a matter of taste, we choose to stop short at this point.”

The last section of “Remembrance” “BRITISH ADDRESSES” is, unfortunately (to my mind), uneven.  Here McCarthy puns in a racy manner on clunky place names conceivable only in the U.K.

( gleaned from a job compiling databases ).  Yet some elbow pokes, on the page, lack the ever effective inflections that Jack’s noted for on stage.

On stage, they rock!  National and international crowds have had their cover charge amply repaid with golden metaphor; I witnessed the McCarthy Mesmerism Act when I booked Jack to read at Geno’s Rock Tavern, back in the Brown Street days.  SRO, as befits a legend.

As to the present: Jack is battling lung cancer.  Buy this book.  (A mere $10!)  The karma you earn will be a blessing to him; the text will be a blessing to you.  One final epigram, a Dylan Thomas quote printed opposite the author’s bio and photo, is sadly appropriate: “I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.”

Godspeed with your next book, Jack.

reviewed by Peter Manuel