Word/ For Word # 2

Aaron McCollough


Review of The Red Bird, by Joyelle McSweeney
(Fence Books, 2002. 80 pp. $12)

What delights me most about Joyelle McSweeney's first book, The Red Bird, is its vigor. McSweeney's poems are filled with allusions (high and low), fragments of folklore, collage-effects, miscues, but also with direct statements and clear images -- a hearty, well-balanced meal. Like many other challenging and refreshing poets writing today, McSweeney uses all of the tools at her disposal, including an almost Boolean intelligence, to get at the confluence of materials that makes for irresistible poetry. While hybridity itself may be an ageless concept, McSweeney and her ilk are finding wonderful ways of ringing real news -- as Pound might say -- from it.

McSweeney is a smart poet. It is safe to call her an academic poet, but I want to use these terms with care. Where "smart" or "academic" poets might often be faulted for showcasing the intellect at the expense of the heart -- or, what we might call any number of other things: feeling, social consciousness, etc. -- McSweeney pushes on into the overwhelming catalogs of knowledge to the places where only the heart can save her. Thus, The Red Bird returns always to a seedbed of emotional and ethical depth. Some of the book's most exciting moments are in the cross talk between kinds of thinking and feeling, knowing and not knowing, hoping and dreading. The Current collides with the Ancient in McSweeney's world and into that storm goes the sometimes fragile sometimes plucky speaker. Likewise, the world goes into the speaker. Both permeations are apparent, for example, in "Toy Maternity":

Last year, like so many others
he bought racehorses on the bull market.
The darlings deflated

en masse. So I debuted
on next to nothing, one slipper
on the Turkish carpet,

half bustle and half wig.
The rescue vessel sinks itself
by filling its ballast tanks, slips

under the listing vessel, then surfaces
cargo and all. Therefore
he who believes in me

goes into me
and he who goes into me
has me.

The Red Bird is contemporary in all the best senses. While bearing the stress marks of an anxious and suspicious age, it uses anxiety and suspicion as vehicles to new vistas of credulity and good will. The Red Bird is a smart book. Smart enough to look behind appearances but also smart enough to make something we can trust in and from the late world's many surfaces and depths.



[contributors' notes]