If You Can Tell

James McMichael. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $23 (96p) ISBN 978-0-374-17518-4
In his seventh collection, composed of eight long poems, McMichael (Capacity) fusses over questions of what is unseen and what is assumed as he ponders god and the oft-tautological nature of religion. Imagining that he is born from a mere wish, the speaker erases memory at will—word games accumulate before giving way to a rumination on life’s stages. In a life that is both full and oddly incomplete, the hollow parts fill with a longing for wonder that turns into an attempt at religion. The speaker gets caught up in insecurities over a lack of strong faith: “I wanted to be asleep so I wouldn’t go on making// God up out of the wind.” In plain and measured language, McMichael stumbles toward a sort of revelation that Death, silent, hovers in the background: “Under its breath it primes me to pay up and look pleasant.” The poems reflect the muddled, late-life process of sorting memory into a cohesive whole, but there is a disconnect: McMichael never reveals why this search for god and the unseen happens aside from the fact of aging. The language grows repetitive and convoluted, an effect further amplified by his lineation and enjambment. These are narratives attempting to find their source myth, and though there are great moments, none of the poems really linger in the mind for long. (Feb.)
Reviewed on: 01/18/2016
Release date: 02/02/2016
Genre: Fiction
Paperback - 96 pages - 978-0-374-53682-4
Ebook - 978-0-374-71490-1
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