Considering Kevin McFadden's Hardscrabble

McFadden, Kevin. Hardscrabble.
VQR Poetry Series
Univ. of Georgia, 2008. (112 pages).
ISBN 978-0820331188

The thesis of Hardscrabble is that words matter. Not words in the context of what one says or expresses, but in the individual linguistic units themselves, their physical and historical relations to one another. In his first book of wordy weavings, Kevin McFadden instructs us that the average writer has no real clue what he or she is talking about, because the words he or she has choosen mean so many different, hidden things that our supposed intentions are overpowered.
     However, the theme of Hardscrabble is harder to decipher. The poet keeps his focus close on his country, as he suggests in “The Faucet”: “My friends suggest I should write more / toward the impossible, around the unreal. / I tell them my theme’s America, / what’s the diff?” And he backs up his claim, observing later in the poem “the national pastime’s a diamond / made of dirt.” But despite the time spent uncovering the unease behind words we use easily to identify ourselves, McFadden seems generally concerned about something more personal, too, and the entire book reads as a scramble to dig the dirt out of a collapsing hole to get a glimpse of something, anything at the bottom. It is the eternal quest to resolve personal truths out of the heavy coat of nationalism we are all born wearing. Whether you are captivated by such an errand – or the painstaking verbal process it requires in a book of poetry – will determine your enjoyment of Hardscrabble.
     Do not read this book if you don’t enjoy wordplay and puns. I say this not for your sake, but for Kevin McFadden’s sake: if these sorts of etymological jumbles anger you, there is a ninety-nine percent chance that halfway through his book you will get up, fly to Virginia, find where Kevin McFadden lives and wait for him in the bushes outside his front door so you can beat him to death with a copy of the Abridged OED when he arrives home. When I say words—as objects, people, and idols—are the thesis of this book, I mean they are both alpha and omega in the religion of McFadden’s world, from his birth as a “heavyweight” in Ohio the night after Ali fought there, and onward. And so we come to that self-defeating bit of criticism which swirls around some of our best abstract poets: the no-holds-barred attack on language creates a polarizing work. Nothing in Hardscrabble will convince the reader that knowing “Formalist” can form “Moral Fist” is essential to your life; on the other hand, if you do not need convincing of the importance of secret etymologies and strange synonyms, then this book reads like a treasure map.
     McFadden constructs many of the poems in the book using the anagrammatical method, where he takes a line from another poet’s work and rearranges it into new words and phrases for each line of the new poem. It’s an impressive tactic, and in some cases, extremely effective. Reading them involves a compromise, allowing for some peculiar construction in order to enjoy the weaving of the words themselves; McFadden would never take the focus away from those. Take the last of these works, “Authentic,” which tells a story about the author of the original line:

The land was ours before we were the land’s,
Frost wrote. Slander. Was he blue? He weaned
A werewolf, breast-held us. He answered not
To snare but defend where we are: owl-slash
At wee hours, flea on web strands.

“owl-slash at wee hours”? Amazing words, but they prompt an owl-like stare: what, exactly, is going on? I highlight this process not to lampoon it, but to say it’s enjoyable, and can yield more than the simple word game beneath it. It would be uncouth of me to suggest how an owl cutting through the night “defends” our situation, as I would not want to speak for the poet(s), but I think the process of creating these questions can reveal important facets of our thinking process which become lazy in front of simpler phrases. Fortunately, I don’t have to defend this point, as McFadden does an excellent job himself with his more expansive works.
     One of those works is “It’s Tarmac” also anagrammatical, but with a twist. Mcfadden breaks apart all the books that were in his trunk on a cross-country road trip and rearranges their thoughts and words into a twisted, stream-of-consciousness travel journal. While the result varies between astute observation and some genuinely excessive babble, it passes the readability test in the way that few such journals can. Enough American history lies in-between McFadden’s observations of himself to keep the whole enterprise grounded.
     While “It’s Tarmac” is the physical centerpiece of the book, I believe the true gold star goes to “Famed Cities”, an absolutely unique merging of biography, geography and etymology. Divided into 20 sections, each titled with unusually-named towns, the poem follows the author on a trip that goes both back to his youth and around his native Ohio.

When did I notice you begin at C level?
All those years I drove into you, the letters must
have slipped me some sooth –though I know, I know,
you rise above it. Still, C level fits:
the even keel, average but no slacker, with so litte
need for an Athat you dropped one early on from
your composing sticks, Moses’s CLEAVELAND
squeezed in the interest of space. And somewhere
in one of your synagogues, a Kabbalist knows
how much can hang on one letter: one omission
from the Talmud will end creation, boil the seas,
set every river on fire. You’re a warning-or confession-
I never could finish. C level and…and what?
Open question.

By parsing town names and their original intents, McFadden finds meaning in both his own personal reading of the name and our larger sense of what the place means in our culture. The fact that he sustains this level of insight through twenty sections cannot fail to impress – and then the reader realizes he does it again for “Time,” a similar journey through Virginia’s nomenclatures. While this second piece skews more towards comment than reflection, both poems coalesce ethereal linguistic bonds that our senses detect but do not readily process.
     Most of the time, I emerged from McFadden’s poems having enjoyed myself, and not quite being sure why. And I appreciated this magic spell he had spoken, because it encouraged me to read the poems again, enjoying them more. The pleasures of a good book of poetry sometimes come from finding an exact phrase or word one needs but could not express. Hardscrabble produces an entirely different form of pleasure, in that it comes from a variety of unseen ghosts behind the eerily cast webs of wordplay. This book has no lessons to teach; instead, simply listen and be transformed.

Joe Gallagher works for the Massachusetts Cultural Council as the Poetry Outreach Project Coordinator, helping to bring poetry to more people throughout the Commonwealth. He is also the poetry editor for Redivider, a journal of new literature published by Emerson College, where he is studying towards an MA in Publishing. His poetry has been previously published in small journals such as Fusion and Skylight. His company, Mushroom Cloud Press, publishes plays written by high school students.

Boxcar Poetry Review - ISSN 1931-1761