There’s a moment in life – perhaps it’s a marker of maturity or just an acknowledgment that childhood is truly over – when death starts to feel like it’s everywhere. Optimists will use this as a call to appreciate life while you have the opportunity to, yet the reality is that death is exhausting, draining, and dehydrating. Which is why it’s so startling to find that there’s so much light inherent within Have You Had Enough Darkness Yet? by Irene McKinney. This posthumously published collection focuses intently on the first hand experience of dying, and there’s no escaping either the reality of a rapidly approaching mortality, or the eeriness of reading poems written by a woman who knows that she’s going to die. Especially when the pulse of the poems, the stirring, hot-blooded motion of them is still very much alive in your hands. McKinney is with you every step of the way, just as you’re with her, but there’s a third presence – the shadow of an inevitable but uncertain future which is moving, emotional, and poignant.
McKinney has a wonderful, practiced ease with language which is to be expected from a poet as established as she, yet while the form and structure of each poem is deeply traditional, she continually uses this to her advantage in keeping the work curious and at times, playful. Her preoccupation is in noticing. Through paying attention to events, both domestic and divine, they are elevated to pure poetry. Fearlessly, she considers things which others may not. For example, in ‘The Living Hand’, her focus is on the history of writers – Balzac, Hugo, Emily Bronte, Woolf and Keats, the contact of them to us.
Keats – holding out his
living hand, that warm scribe – to us,
a hand with thin bones, smallish and
pale, and gone. And gone.
Yet, as you might expect in a collection of this nature, there is a lingering question too: what is the living hand’s place among the dead and the great? Neatly McKinney sits among her influences, her interests, her living hand extended to us, and gone. And gone.
As the collection develops, it builds not only a rhythm but increases in volume and intensity, as the object of her focus tightens from spiritual and historical minutiae to the fibers of what makes life a life. McKinney’s often conversational tone is masterful at lulling the reader into a sense of familiarity and comfort, yet this familiarity breeds investment which is a difficult price to pay. ‘Darkness Poem’ is a stark reminder that this conversation is one which is inevitably coming to a close, and certainly feels too soon.
Have you had enough wide?
No. Enough earth? No.
Enough water? No, not nearly enough.
Enough dirt to walk on?
No. Never, never.
The collection in its entirety is an answer to the question “Have You Have Enough Darkness Yet?” and the answer is a resounding never. By the end, ‘Five Slick Black Seeds’ I was moved to tears by the loss of a person who had died before I had the chance to know her. When she asks ‘House me, and bring me home’ it isn’t so much a request as a reminder: that there is a final place that McKinney is going which she cannot bring us to – we have visited the place of pain and memory, love and the sense of losing, but the final steps she takes on her own, leaving us with only her words as a kind of balm.
The structure of the collection, largely kept as McKinney would have had it, is prefaced by one of the last poems she wrote. In ‘To My Reader’, McKinney is the Beatrice to our Dante as she takes our hand and reminds us of what was, what is, and what shall be.
To My Reader
There’s a passage through the night
where someone awards me, hangs
the tassle of distress off to the side
and replaces it with a badge
indicating that I did one thing
right by continuing what
I’d started when I didn’t know
it had begun, and I was sure
of no reward. Blessings were not
forthcoming, daily distress.
The path is aerial seen from
above. I startle myself
and feel I have no choice but
to proceed by inches. I pull down
the magic curtain, uncurb the car,
get in and drive, coaxing
the pattern to relief.
And you have been with me
through the long and hateful night
although you are only a shadow.
You have stayed behind
my shoulder and I’ve sheltered
you there, made a place for
you in my mind. In loneliness,
in rain, in the loss of breath,
you have been with me
and I have not failed you
because I continued to speak
when you begged me not
to inquire further and I spoke
to your fears in a voice of grief,
saying, yes they are gone and
will not return, but you
are still breathing. And I sang
you a song that came through
a trail of nerves down the generations
through all we have read together
and all we have remembered.
Remember the words, and I’ll remember you.
The lyrical nature of the poem calls to mind all great eulogies, attempting to deal with abstracts in a way that somehow makes them more easy to understand. Yet it is the final lines that you inevitably carry with you, long after the collection is finished and the book has been put back on the shelf. Remember the words, and I’ll remember you. You will be remembered by your own words, Irene McKinney. Perhaps there’s no better credit to give a poet than that.