(W)HOLES by Cynthia Macdonald


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The operatic gestures of Macdonald's previous poetry have given way to a carnival glassiness--""Hurry, hurry, hurry/ To see the Italian,/ The third in the Eye, Ear, Nose and Throat team""--that's if anything even stagier and more hooked on improbability than before. The Diane Arbus epigraph, the poems about bag-ladies and lady baseball pitchers, an explicit aesthetic statement (""The freak leaves us bereft, forcing a little/ Mutiliation somewhere to set things right/ To wreak penance/ To set the freak flags flying""), all declare a strong interest in human oddments, in freaks. But the pun (""penance"" and ""flags"") is rife here; and Macdonald's cleverness works curiously against the specialness of the subjects: the riffing and trilling and glissandi make the freaks she writes about seem like pretexts. When Macdonald deals not with roles and curiosities, however, but with the personal--as she does in the volume's long poem, ""Burying the Babies""--the verbal antsiness comes over with more purpose. ""I have been trained for forty-five years/ To hold on,"" she writes; and the poem proceeds to piece together a love affair with a married man (a doctor), and themes of water, puppets, women's fates--and also patching in, deftly and impressively, chips of other texts (cookbooks, gardening books, her son's English compositions) which seem to be occasioned by the shifting attentions of the poem instead of vice versa. Yet even here the punning eventually contaminates: ""Soup. Curlicued lintels. Do I mean lentils? Soup./ Sole. I am cooking, garnishing with parsley,/ Currying favor, favoring filet of sole for you."" This whither-thou-goest attitude toward her own verbal inventiveness tessellates an already intriguing design into chaos: every two strong lines are succeeded, to no purpose, by two of echoes and smartness. The effect is disturbing, unsatisfying, watery.

Pub Date: Jan. 18th, 1980
Publisher: Knopf