January 22, 2009

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Same Life, by Maureen N. McLane (2008. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 109 pages)
By Dan Szczesny letters@hippopress.com

The switch from critic to poet is fraught with obstacles, the least of which is overconfidence. For years, Maureen N. McLane’s essays on poetry and culture have filled some of the largest publications, from the Chicago Tribune to the Washington Post. McLane is pretty high up there in the critic echelon as a member of the National Book Critics Circle, kind of the Knights Templar of the literary book world. The NBCC is responsible for all kinds of behind-the-scenes academic atrocities carried out in the name of literature. (Check out McLane’s latest inexplicable series of “bread pudding” blog posts at the NBCC site to see what I mean.) Mainly, though, the NBCC is about name-dropping and making sure critics have an inner circle of other reviewers to review their books when they inevitably become authors. That’s all fine.

So now McLane, an English professor (of course) at NYU, has published her own volume of poetry, Same Life. But overconfidence is not McLane’s problem. She understands form and rhythm; she can take advantage of a good metaphor, is able to sniff out a fine analogy, and is a wiz with meter. McLane’s collection is competent, accessible and beautifully intricate.

The problem is its distance. McLane’s prose is cold and, well, academic. I realize it’s clichéd to accuse a professor of being an academic, but it’s hard not to here. Her poetry is all fragments, tiny shards of rat-a-tat words that spray the reader with their wide shot, but are easy to wipe off after.

For example, the poem “Songs of a Season” is rife with tiny, beautiful phrases: “air thick / with lilac / the strong sun liquefying / the street” or “your plum lips / your slim hips / fingertips.” It’s pretty, but fleeting stuff.

There is also a painful tendency in modern academic poets to splay their words out across the page, with wide open space cuts, and all manner of breaks and white space. Once again, this technique only adds to the poems’ cool distance. It feels like a shortcut, using syntax in an attempt to create feeling instead of actual feeling. In fact, there is even a poem called “Syntax.” Ugh.

McLane is better later in the volume, when she moves away from form as emotion and actually opens up somewhat with a lovely long poem called “Core Samples” where the poet considers past and present lovers. But it’s really too late by then.

It’s fortunate McLane has a built-in group of critics who may look kindly upon Same Life. I, however, am not a member. D