THING MUSIC by Anthony McCann reviewed by Matthew Girolami


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by Anthony McCann
Wave Books, 113 pages

reviewed by Matthew Girolami

Anthony McCann’s newest collection, Thing Music, is not unlike a player piano, only instead of standards it plays John Cage or even Merzbow. That is to say, that while the reader recognizes McCann’s Thing Music to be poetry as one recognizes Cage’s compositions to be music, the common associations with either art—melody and harmony, form and line—are rearranged, actively dissonant, and yet nonetheless beautiful. Unlike familiar emotional confirmations found in melodrama or more confessional lyric poetry, Thing Music’s reward is one of discovery: of new pleasures found in innovative poetic forms, and of newfound emotional connections made with the imagery and diction belonging to those forms. That is not to say Thing Music overtly plays with common poetic restraints; rather, the collection challenges the idea of form through its overall free-form stylistic execution, only leaving recurring motifs of formal structures, words, and images throughout the collection as trail blazes to unify the poems and enhance the reader’s comprehension of the collection as a whole text.

Anthony McCann

Anthony McCann

But what is a “text”? It seems McCann explores the text’s limits as an object, that is, as a set of signs informing the reader. McCann’s engagement with form especially challenges the reader in this way: he pushes against language’s ability to inform the audience, seeking to reach the reader with obscure or purposely rearranged, revaluated methods. Frequently using a skinnier structure, which relies on brief and often one-word lines, McCann emphasizes negative space on the physical page without losing the impact of the line, however short. While this form commonly risks the integrity of the line, McCann manages to pull it off throughout Thing Music; from “Like the Dirt (Five Ceremonies)”:

……… the Blinding
….are motionless

Through form, McCann leads the reader to discover and examine connections between the poems and the collection as a whole. Consider “Mirrorthing”: undeniably related to the “thing” in Thing Music’s title, McCann poetically implores the reader to ask how the two words relate, and what is significant about this relationship. This joining of “Mirror” and “thing” naturally leads the reader to relate the newly married word to the “music” of the collection’s title, as well. In this way—the poetic joining of the two words—McCann poeticizes an object (“Mirror”), as if such an application is what lends an object its symbolism. Following on its own line, the lone “trees” works with the negative space to evoke the stillness described in the line after it. In seven words, McCann uses the page to emotionally resonate with the reader. His use of unique capitalization, play with space (indentation), and joining of words speak to his craft as well as a larger pondering. In other words, where other poets have failed with such experimentation, McCann succeeds—it’s as if McCann leaves the door to the poem ajar, with just enough access for the reader to enter. It’s a triumphant balance of obscurity and clarity, experimentation and accessibility.

And Thing Music is rife with music. While McCann primarily employs a free-form style, he subtly intersperses rhyme and meter throughout the collection. The third of the above poem’s five ceremonies is subtly rhythmic:

….in bark
in gnarled
blue skin

“we grasped
….one another
and entered
….the dirt”

but words
did they gleam

of white light
….on the floor
of the wind

When read aloud, this “ceremony” takes on an almost metered, chanting quality. Each stanza alternates in rising or falling inflections to create an almost singsong rhythm, and without cheapening the striking imagery of the poem itself.
Though sparseness is not Thing Music’s only striking quality. There are sections that depart from form to rebuild the disassembled world of the collection. In the middle section, Mouth Guitar, McCann neglects the skinny form for the longer line, and, accompanied by the content, takes on a somewhat narrative quality; from, “Prodigals”:

But now you have the words—
with the little pictures they arrive,
to be near you, inside you
just when they disappeared. You’ll see here a small deer

in the arms of the erased. Here is the river
where the capture of the deer, and the
forest and the war and the vast
gray poisoned lake.

Working through a possibly traumatic experience, or perhaps loss, the speaker must rename the world. Take the second stanza, for example: “Here is the river / where the capture of the deer, and the / forest and the war and the vast”; here, the reader intuitively expects the third line to do, but—with the nouns listed—it just is: “war” and “poisoned lake” take on the quality of something that “does” or has been “done” to, but without action, without actual verbs. In this syntactical and linguistic restructuring, McCann again challenges language’s ability to inform the reader; the reader approaches the fragment and its imagery and brings his or her own emotional reading to the poem, entering the door the poet left ajar.

And upon opening the door, there is music—poetry—in the material world. Put so plainly, such a statement seems obvious, a cliché. But McCann rediscovers the cliché, reclaiming its truth. “Sacred geometry” comes to mind. Considered a bridge between nature and man and man and god, sacred geometry is believed to link naturally occurring mathematical shapes to the man-made architecture of places of worship. And as priests read “beauty” or “truth” into nature, McCann reads beauty and truth into human language: using form, space, and line, McCann applies his own mathematics to language in order to reconcile the struggle to express the human experience.

Cleaver Poetry Reviews Editor Matthew Girolami is a poet from New Jersey. His work appears in the Susquehanna Review. He is a graduate of Franklin & Marshall College, where he was Arts & Entertainment Editor of The College Reporter.


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