Climbing the Divide
Over a long, illustrious career the author has practiced and nearly perfected what might be called a Texas plain style. Without fuss or pyrotechnics, his poems draw readers into a life both unexceptional and extraordinary, made so by the vitality of his poetic language and his salty, engaging persona. One beautiful poem remembers his mother in a home movie with equal amounts of nostalgia and irony: “My God! she was lovely, our father / breathless for twenty seconds, / her hair glossy dark, her body shapely // before children, before any of us.”
In “This Could Be Eden” the irony is stronger, as images of a gorgeous morning in the Rockies are balanced against others of a hiker mauled by a grizzly and of schoolchildren, perhaps classmates of his beloved grandchildren, “with dustcoats / over grudges no one knows, but burning to show the world.” The everyday world of these poems is peaceful, one of ranching in Texas, hiking in Montana, and memories of a mainly happy childhood. Yet the awareness of violence always lurks; as McDonald says, “Vietnam is always a fact-there it is, / even in dreams.” More distant and more recent wars, in the Philippines and Bosnia, temper and complicate any leanings toward sentimentality. “I wonder if Orville and Wilbur / thought about bombs and rockets / when they launched facedown,” a poem written near Kitty Hawk muses; “We face the east where our son flies // thousands of stars from here, / hot coffee cooling as we sip, / nothing to see but miles of dark / and white caps crashing down.”
Such unaffected, unforced writing is much easier to admire than to achieve. Many poets would make more of such a scene, and a great deal more of their own suffering, but McDonald, whose poems have been published in The American Scholar, The Atlantic Monthly, and London Review of Books, knows when to stop, and how to strengthen a poem by leaving out what is unnecessary. Like feathers, his poems have both lightness and strength; he understands the poetic virtue of understatement and the human virtue of humility. These are not experimental poems; they are deeply, originally traditional, and just as deeply accomplished.