Rose McLarney’s second book of poems, Its Day Being Gone, is haunted with ghosts yet living. They suffer through a perpetually transforming landscape they barely recognize, performing labors that grow increasingly anachronistic and futile. Sometimes she observes them, sometimes she is one of them, but always, like an oracle, she reads them as omens of a landscape, a time, or a proud people on the way to being lost.
In his second book, North of Boston, Robert Frost made the regional poem at once modern and universal, a feat McLarney is mastering. In “Facing North,” the first poem of Its Day Being Gone, McLarney seems to have Frost’s “After Apple-Picking” on her mind. Frost may be “done with apple picking” and feel like he’s “had too much,” but McLarney ups the tribulation ante. Instead of sighing a sympathetic sigh after finishing the Frost, at the end of McLarney’s poem we’re aghast at the wearying realities the poem portrays and at the poet’s ability to convey them with power and economy. She first instructs us to gaze into several pair of eyes:
How articulate, the eyes
of silent animals when I chose
to shoot the sick goat. All day,
the dogs would not look at me, not
let me touch them, legs folding away from
the level to which I had lowered my hand.
Putting down a sick goat is an ordinary event in many people’s lives, of course, but it’s an unusual occasion for a contemporary American poem, most of which do not feature livestock, would only know the smell of barnyard from certain white wines, or get all canning-beets-with-Grandma-folksy at the thought of anything rural.
Frost’s poem is about fatigue, a dream of winter and death, but he is not at war with nature, and he finds an ally in a cute woodchuck. McLarney recognizes the uncertain alliance between humans and animals, knows it, like everything else in nature, can be destroyed by choices we make. Even the chickens, who always run crazily, run from this executioner, even if they, like us, do not witness the deed, which, classically, is performed off stage:
And the chickens ran,
following their crazed paths,
every which way, but every
way away from me. The goat
looked as if she were running
as she lay, after, legs kicking.
McLarney knows that this “is no new / remorse” as her foreboding spills over the land in the meditative third stanza:
The light has always
been leaving my narrow,
north section. Place of the long
history of short days.
It’s the frost that stays. More mornings
than not here, no sun is enough
to undo the frost. I should have given
her southerly pasture. I should have
gone in another direction.
Some poets might have been satisfied with a shooting-the-goat narrative; others with a James-Wright-I-have-wasted-my-life closure. McLarney digs in, goes deeper:
But consider where goats live
the world over. They browse
on woody brush. On rock, on cliffs.
In deserts, harsh habitat. They choose
cursed land. Who chooses goats?
I chose goats. I liked the bone shapes
in their eyes, the strange, slit pupils
they turned to me, chewing the corners
of my heavy coat. I wanted to live here,
on an old hardscrabble farm.
Every choice is fateful, and McLarney’s best poems are infused with amor fati: she may be harried by the crush of things, but she takes them on as if she had willed them. She chooses to shoot the goat, to live on an old farm, to do the thankless job, yet as she writes in “The Model Walks Away from the Job,” “I will always end questioning what I’ve chosen.” A certain sense of doom runs through her poems:
In this era, when there is no need
to farm, who is drawn to have livestock,
which die so much? Piss and blood
pour out of the back of a shot body.
But it’s piss and blood keeping them
McLarney knows what Augustine knew: inter faeces et urinam nascimur. There is no reason to deny it. It isn’t romantic, this business of living and dying. Like Gottfried Benn, in “Schöne Jugend,” who observes a nest of baby rats feeding inside the corpse of a girl and then tosses the whole mess in the river, or like Baudelaire in “Une Charogne,”where a bloated, exploded, maggot-ridden, carrion-pecked corpse of a whore shows us our common fate, McLarney presents a visceral image and deals with it:
Didn’t I say
I was done with livestock last winter
when the calf froze to the ground, then to
death because it couldn’t move?
When I ripped it loose, the intestines,
threaded through crow-torn holes
in its belly, clung to the grass and shattered.
I said those were my ties to the place.
This powerful poem ends with chickens pecking at the bread, offered as bait, or as sacrament perhaps, in the dead goat’s mouth: “I can’t stay away / from the hard images,” she writes, and we are glad.
Hard living, hard times, hard images, heartbreak—these are themes that provoke McLarney to “beauty the material,” even if she has “skill enough only for laments” (“Sweetness and Ink”):
I was the kind to note the apple trees heaviest
with blooms were the ones
with trunks broken by snow in winter. (“Petition”)
In the less-compelling poems, the fierce lyric I, that voice of a Southern girl with a brain and a stubborn will who likely heard the threat and prophecy that that mouth of yours is going to get you into trouble, that relentlessly engaged, unblinkingly observant, smart-ass lyric I goes missing, and the narratives about regional history can get a bit treacly. Instead of using the collective we or trying to project herself into the souls of strangers, as in the poems of the middle section about childhood days spent somewhere in Latin America, McLarney is at her best letting her own experience reveal the sensibility of the bitter south.
The stern, stoic persona and voice she crafts is so tragically appealing, we want to keep getting stomach-punched with merciless descriptions of gutting a deer and conversing with its decapitated head on the walk home—“it was too bloody / to put in the truck”(“Guts, Gleam”). We want more of the counter-romantic who, as in “Hear Him Up There,” almost wants to envy the blind belief of a hound whose baying echoes across a mountain ridge:
But it’s not me, the purity
of feeling of a dog with a rabbit between his teeth,
in the moment when he turns to run toward
Even if she can never offer up anything she’s gotten her teeth into, she can be tender (though her tenderness is also fierce), as in “Landscape”:
How good then,
today: to find myself staring
at the tendons in a man’s neck,
between them, his breath. I could follow
them a long way, down beneath
his collar. First, I should speak, see how
his chest shifts through his shirt,
just in the act of turning to me.
In these moments, McLarney’s grim lyricism keeps us rapt, agog, and sometimes frightened. She writes uncompromising, honest poems that sound like no one else—only Karen Solie is a match for McLarney’s arduous force and laconic restraint.
One of the finest poems in Its Day Being Gone, “Story with a Real Beast and a Little Blood,” might as well be McLarney’s ars poetica. It’s about “The night the bull broke loose,” a common enough locution to begin a good Southern tale wherein “there was much to learn”: when to “slip a rope around his neck,” for example, or how to tempt him with “a path of sweet feed” after the men have had their fill of being “butted and bruised.” It’s an unusual setting to recall the dicta of Ezra Pound, but McLarney knows the natural object is a more than adequate symbol:
But let’s not look to make allegories,
for any meaning beyond the marvel
of a bull, tangled in a broken rose,
sheltering in a culvert, stamping, snorting—
. . .
You have a life in which such stories
are not symbols.
In an earlier poem, “Eyes Lifted,” McLarney writes of the delight, or perhaps despair, of staring up at rays of sun piercing a damaged barn roof, illuminating the darkness, while a lover works with tar until “the brilliant was / blacked out.” Here, though, she can’t get enough of the light in the darkness, even if she pays for it with her hide:
You too held on
to the rope when the bull ran. You
sometimes flew, sometimes followed
on your knees, down the mountain, noting
even in brambles, as you bled, the stars.
McLarney is a poet who understands that the beautiful things are difficult, and that we must suffer into truth.
Its Day Being Gone opens with some lyrics from “Little Margaret,” a traditional ballad that found a home in Appalachia. The song tells of Margaret, so heartbroken when William married another that she died, or killed herself, as he passed by her house with his new bride. That night, ghost Margaret appears at the foot of William’s marriage-bed and inquires how he likes his new pillow, sheets, and bride. William realizes that no matter how much he likes those, he desires Margaret more. Regretting his choice, William calls on Margaret in the morning only to discover she’s in her coffin. He kisses her hand, cheeks, and lips and lies down with her, presumably dying. I cannot find a version of the song that matches McLarney’s, which includes the strange syntax that gives the book its title: “Its day being gone and night coming on.” Most singers sing “It’s now night” or “It was all lately in the night,” but I’d guess McLarney wants that pronoun, wants “its day being gone” to ring in our ears, for she wants us to consider Appalachia, its farms and farmers, its mountainfolk, its betrayed and disappointed. She wants us to feel so haunted by decisions men have made, by the senseless destruction of mountaintops, of ways of living, and of ecosystems that, like sweet William, we would be willing to do anything, make any hard choice, to somehow get back what is well on its way to being gone.