Thursday, July 7, 2011

Review of Gary McDowell's American Amen

by Scott Owens
(first published in Pirene's Fountain

by Gary L. McDowell
Dream Horse Press, 2010
ISBN: 9781935716044

“Between dawn and dusk / is purgatorial,” says Gary McDowell in “Forever Falling Off or Out,” a poem in his stimulating new collection, American Amen. Night, that time of the unconscious, these lines imply, may be heaven or hell, but either way it is beyond our powers to control. Thus, the proper concern of mankind is that time between, that time of striving, of committing sins and making amends, of doing what we can to make the best of our conscious existence.

In keeping with this existential positioning, the best of these poems explore the coexistent contraries of human nature--the selfish and selfless, the savage and loving--and the thin veil of comfort that separates these polar inclinations. The speaker of “Winter” tells us:

I am not that far removed
from cracking bones
to put food in my stomach
. . . . . . . . . .
I am not that far removed
from eating only what I catch
I am not that far removed
from being afraid of waking
to find my family vanished.

Part of what we do to fend off our own savagery in this purgatorial existence is embodied by this book of poems, by any art, by any objectification of our psyche. In “Too Damn Perfect,” the speaker tells us “I’m trying to translate my misgivings into precipitation.” The line makes a fair statement about the artist’s purpose--translating misgivings into that which moves things forward--and perhaps just as fair a statement of what we all should be doing.

No one should think, however, that such an examination of life will be inevitably and invariably somber. One of the joys of this collection, in fact, is the sense of humor and humility frequently exhibited by the poems. In “Weather, Weather,” for example, the speaker lists his “greatest moments: eight hours of consecutive sleep, / four cheeseburgers in ten minutes, two women in my lifetime.” And later in the same poem he acknowledges, “I know that my greatest moment will one day be clogged in glaciers” and “I sometimes / wish I had more to record.” Similarly, and perhaps ultimately, he acknowledges in “Back Home” that “it’s impossible to get this right.” Fortunately, for those of us who manage to find these poems, none of these humbling facts about human endeavor has kept McDowell to “get this right.” And I hope, as I suspect McDowell does, that all of us will take up the same challenge of making meaning where uncertainty is the only thing granted.

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