Tuesday, April 16, 2013

BPR LIT TRIP 16 with Nick McRae

It may have been a whim on which the world—
the universe—was spoken into matter.

These are the opening lines of Nick McRae’s poem “Genesis,” one of five published in the Birmingham Poetry Review volume 40. The idea that the world or the universe could have blossomed from words spoken attracted the Steiny Road Poet’s attention because this week the poems she will choose for review will contain emphasis on words, names, and the writing of poetry.  What she realizes now is this thought most likely refers to the New Testament John 1:1 “In the beginning was the word…” and as she stated in BPR Lit Trip 11 about Ricardo Pau-Llosa’s “God-Is-Love Man,” she isn’t a Christian and has limited understanding of the New Testament. However, what she does know is John 1:1 connects with Genesis in the Old Testament.

McRae’s “Genesis” is a variant of the envelope sonnet organized as two envelope quatrains in one octave (a stanza of eight lines) using this rhyme pattern: abbabccb and a sestet in this rhyme pattern: defdef. The end words are: 

fall/ confused/spears/swell/bruised/years.

Although McRae begins with iambic pentameter, he does not sustain it and the lines are often eleven syllables long. Nonetheless, the poem presents in a more traditional sound pattern than Ed Balbo’s nonce sonnet “Advice from a Friend.” The Steiny Road Poet suspects that McRae’s use of Biblical words and phrases, the tighter control over the metrical feet, and the introductory use of iambic pentameter augmented by mostly near rhymes throughout is what achieves this illusion versus Balbo’s more conversational tone in part due to word choice, variable syllable counts by line and near rhymes that occasionally strain the ear, not to mention the visual versus oral on the last two end words  alone/gone. This is not to say one poem is better than the other, but only to comment on different approaches contemporary poets are employing in the creation of sonnets.

McRae’s poem has some eloquently stated ideas like lines three through five:

Then we happened and made ourselves the master
of it all—the beautiful and gnarled
collection: root and flesh, baleen and feather.

Here mankind comes into existence without fanfare and takes charge—master of it all—of the other living organisms as represented by root and flesh, baleen and feather. What an interesting way to point to plants and animals, including whales (baleen is a whale jawbone) and birds.

After the masters of it all (Adam and Eve’s names are never mentioned in the poem) are thrown out of Paradise, the separation occurs and is set down this way in lines nine and ten:

But separate as we were—the rise and fall
of towers and tribes, our languages confused,

By line 12, reference is made to the covenant God strikes with Noah. Here are the last three lines of the sonnet:

we found a covenant in the green sea’s swell,
the cypress with its windy voice, a bruised
body entwined with ours, our numbered years.

Because McRae has only 14 lines to work with and Genesis is 50 chapters long, compression and suggestion are the only way he can advance through this eventful  First Book of Moses where the descendants of Abraham die before they can escape Pharaoh and Egypt to gain entrance into the Promised Land. The Steiny Poet guesses that a “bruised/body entwined with ours” might refer to Jacob wrestling with the angel after Jacob has stolen his brother Esau’s birthright. It’s an interesting challenge Nick McRae has set for himself.

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