cover artI think I have mentioned before that a friend and I have a regular postal poetry exchange. This year we are choosing to read poets we have not read before who are still living and whose poetry tends to focus on nature in some way. I’ve had the pleasure of discovering some wonderful poets including Brenda Hillman and Joseph Massey. When I learned that Helen McDonald wrote poetry and that she has a book called Shaler’s Fish I was excited. I might be one of the few people left who has not read H is for Hawk and even though I plan to read it eventually I thought reading her poetry first might be both fun and a trip off the beaten path of popularity.
I generally consider myself a pretty good reader of poetry. I might not always get every allusion or style trick but heck, I don’t always get everything when I am reading a novel either. But I have confidence. And just like some novels are not my cuppa, some poetry collections turn out to not be my cuppa either. Shaler’s Fish pretty much left me scratching my head from start to finish.
McDonald’s style is dense and associative and if you lose one jump the whole poem ceases to make any sense. Sometimes I would get lost on the second or third line. Other times I would think, woo-hoo I am almost at the end of this poem and it still makes sense and then wham! And I’d finish the last few lines wondering what had happened and where I had gone wrong. In cases like these rereading is generally a helpful tactic. That is one of the great things about poetry, they are generally fairly short and easy to read multiple times. Unfortunately most of the time rereading yielded little to no results and I would give up on the poem, moving on and leaving it behind only partially understood or still completely lost in a fog.

Here, for instance, are a few lines from a poem called “On Approaching Natural Colours”

That straight line doth not contain everything I know
& everything I have not yet understood. It is not an is,

nor a cline not a bar, a predicament. The parliament
of fowls & the wheel of clouds, clouds’ sake

Where it sickens again, meaning to place it for hours
& an ill wind picks at heroism, as a fence of flowers

against charms, charm.

See how the associations flow and how it makes sense in pieces but then when I try to put it all together all I can say is, huh? You can see she likes words like “doth” for no particular reason that I can discern other than maybe she likes the way it sounds. She also likes obscure words that had me going to the dictionary so often it made me tired and I eventually gave up on even trying. That probably says more about me than it does the poetry. But at what point does a reader get to say, these poems are unnecessarily dense and abstruse and why don’t you just say it plain once in awhile?

Sometimes there would be some startling and beautiful lines like this from “Poem”

My pen crumples into a swan, it is singing
inauthenticate myth, an not of future splendour
I am glad.

Or this from “letter to america”

looking for a small world in the uninhabitable air
trying to extinguish some deeper desire for fire

with something as cold and as hard and as temporary as flight
& what you were hoping is that the air would recolonise you
recognise you and welcome you into the sunlight
and all would be forgiven.

But so often these moments of beauty and clarity are surrounded by the impenetrable that I can’t say I truly liked even one complete poem. McDonald makes the reader work hard and I am not opposed to that if I get a payoff for all my work. And since I never once felt like I came close to understanding a single poem, I ended up feeling like my efforts were worthless.

I am assuming, given the popularity of H is for Hawk, that her prose is very different than her poetry. Let this serve as a caution if you see Shaler’s Fish at the library and think her poetry will be like her memoir. And if you have read her poetry, please let me know what you thought of it and whether you have made sense out of any of it. I will be glad to know your secret!