“I cut off my head / and carried it / through the streets” So attests the speaker of Anthony McCann’s poem “Mouth Guitar” from his fourth collection, Thing Music, lately from Wave Books. Having studied with McCann at the University of California Riverside’s MFA program, the above line, while intense, seems to me not an unreasonable description of the employment of a wandering contemplative in this brink of a world. McCann, who Maggie Nelson dubs, “one of the finest poets writing today,” is here, as always, electric and thoughtful and full of strange clarity.
The book exists in conversation with Ashbery, Spicer, Keats, and I would dare to say Whitman among so many others. It is interested in the machinery, the apparatuses, the unseen and often paradoxical (“…I, the poet, have returned from nearby / to be far away from you / with you and all my words”) inner workings of this strange experience of being alive and human and having a capacity for expression and thought.
We enter the book with a poem titled “The Day,” which greets the reader with a Puck-like invitation, “please / put on my voice / and through /this voice / my eyes / I mean / this ringing / in my eyes” And ringing is absolutely the right word. Reading aloud, as McCann advocates so often in class, to “activate” the poem, I am struck— struck is also the right word, as though I were a gong— by a kind of inner reverberation that occurs in these poems, a vibrational assent that, although they have plenty to offer ideologically, seems to transcend ordinary intellectual or dialectical meaning. The poems of Thing Music, in their beauty and paradox (How can they be both full of light and space and also smell of earth and asphalt and found feathers and the pelts of animals turning in long grass?) seem to be able to carry on a significant conversation with the subconscious.
Knowing McCann’s phenomenological leanings, we turn to the French philosopher, Maurice Merleau-Ponty for some explanation; “speaking and listening […] presuppose […] the capacity to allow oneself to be pulled down and rebuilt again by the other person before one.” This dismantling—decomposition, if we are to use Spicer’s lexicon—is not, in Thing Music, a violent demolition. It is, rather a kind of gentle explosion, a final burst of crystal when it can no longer hold within its molecules the beauty of the perfect C.
Merleau-Ponty goes on further to explore the idea of language and its relationship to body, “…we,” he writes, “are the language we are talking about. That is, we are the ground of language through our own body. It is though our body that we can speak of the world, because the world in turn speaks to us through the body.” McCann pushes further, “Now, I should imagine / with my body if possible”.
There is in Thing Music a bedrock appeal to poetic embodiment. Throats, faces, hands, blood, bones, shoulders, fingers, teeth, tongues, organs, eyes, lungs, brains, hair, all are summoned in McCann’s ontological symphony. His is a poetics that seeks entrance bodily. Breath and voice, heat and light, heads and feet and knuckles, these are the instruments, the language in which we human-things, both inside and outside of our physicality, communicate. And it is a stuttering communication at best. Thing Music acknowledges, indeed makes beautiful, the limitations of both body and language, even of nature, “Leaves / stammer / on their twigs,” and “…the land / inside the land / still stutters there unsaid.” The world wavers, as does our place in it, “we all flicker there, in the stammering name.” Light trembles, struggles, and finds itself again in mirror imagery, as reflections, secondary sources:
We are the shadows
the names make
when they cross
We cross the thing-like land
Walter Benjamin in his essay On Language as Such, writes, “…language, […] is by no means the expression of everything that we could-theoretically-express through it, but is the direct expression of that which communicates itself in it.” In other words, things do not communicate themselves through language, but as language. “It is more me than mine.” Seen thus, we might envision language as a matrix beneath which certain figures move and push, pressing their otherwise invisible shape up into existence, allowing themselves to become distinguishable in the way of sheets and ghosts. McCann reimagines this idea in the poem “Mouth Guitar,”
… on the street the little tents shook
with the voice and the motion of the bodies inside.
We made much of that space
where bodies leapt up
and of the distance in everything’s lips
where we always found something real
later, to reflect on later, and repeat.
Thing Music makes much of this poetic space, of the gaps in language (“It was of the edges the light spoke / and of the shapes preceding names”), its fallibility, in which something indeed is found, felt first subcutaneously, internally, as harmonics; and later reflected upon, considered, echoed, and returned to once and again.
As the collection is traversed, certain, let’s call them Elementals, drawing on both the chemical and mythological connotations of the word, recur, pressing their forms into the language of the poems. These Elementals are significant (light, language, air, sociality) and often surprising (throat, dirt, drool, faces, shape). McCann wields them, or rather allows for their wielding in the way of a chemist or an origamist; changing their formation, adding and taking away, placing them in this or that surrounding, subjecting them to this or that atmosphere, folding them in and out of each other, creating what is in one poem a glowing temple, and in another a winged crane. A line from the opening stanza of the poem “Fetishism,” “I go over there—but it doesn’t exist” jumps the page to land in the fourth stanza of the poem on the facing page, “Pleasure House” “I went over there—but it didn’t exist.” The line leaps across the page from one poem to the next, contagious as a forest fire, making of itself a call and response, an act and remembrance. And so the collection goes on rearranging and folding anew, becoming, endlessly, a newly luminous iteration of itself.
Thing Music is active, vital and embodied, it scuttles, it tastes cities, drinks the desert air, it itches, groans, dies, lives, clips its toenails, rides the train, takes pictures with its phone, pushes furniture around, and is unilaterally wet with light. The book drips with the salivation of its many mouths. “But I’m a plant / you said / bedewed / in object drool” and later, after we have seen children grow old in the “drooling shade,” after ideas drool through brains and god himself has salivated, or was expected to have done, “I roll and roll on past a sequence of forms, locked into each / other, slurping and hot.”
There is much more to be said about the collection, of its form which vacillates and turns, confronting itself sometimes with robust and surprising rhyme, sometimes with prose-like paragraphs abutted against lilting turns of anapestic verse; of the shifting, decentralized speaker, the I that flickers, becomes a carousel of things, each with its own music; of its politics as well as of its tricky relationship with time, existing omnitemporally in what McCann often refers to as the necrospace of poetry.
And all of this is nice, but none of it can tell you what Thing Music does to you, and by you of course, I mean me. Us. This we-thing, this I-being, this glinting, snuffling, named and nameless self. What can be said of how it throws open a line of doors in the world, in the word, in the throat; how it unlocks safes that are made of hands and moments, of the way it opens a wound and brings the sun to its lacerated lip.
with my feet
and tasted the roads
and been stabbed
in the throat
by the words
“Language transcends us and yet we speak,” writes Merleau-Ponty, in Phenomenology of Perception. Language cannot say the thingness of things, and yet things exist as language. Their shape is only perceived in the sticky and incomplete matrix of words. “It would then be found that the words, vowels, and phonemes are so many ways of ‘singing’ the world,” Merleau-Ponty again, “The initial form of language, therefore, would have been a kind of song.” In Thing Music, one feels that this initial language, the song of this “prenatal throat” is given space. It offers, as poetry ought, an experience of something outside the common geography of language. It is a borderlands encounter, edgy, astonishing, and somewhat violent, as all truth must be, “like” as McCann writes, “when a head comes off / and light spreads across the room.”