Sunday, October 9, 2011


A year ago I visited Kramer’s Books in D.C., and I perused the poetry section. The Swallow Anthology of New American Poets (Ohio University Press, 2009) appealed to my browser’s appetite. As I expected, I did not know any names on the cover. I paged through the book, and this poem jumped out:


After Beloit I went back to the paper
and wrote arts features for eight dollars an hour,
and lived in the Gem Building, on the block between
Topeka High with its Gothic tower
and the disheveled Statehouse with its green
dome of oxidizing copper.

I was sorry that I had no view
of old First National. Something obscured it
from my inset balcony. I heard it
imploding, though, like Kansas Avenue
clearing its throat, and saw the gaudy brown
dust-edifice that went up when it came down.

Friday nights I walked to High’s home games
and sat high in the bleachers,
and tried to look like a self-knowing new
student, and tried not to see my teachers,
and picked out players with familiar names
and told them what to do.

Eric McHenry. Never heard of him, and Topeka is 20 miles upriver from my home. This is how I met 5th generation Topekan McHenry. In his biography, I learned that after college at Beloit and Boston University—and a stint in Seattle—McHenry returned to Washburn University to teach. Kevin Young, Ben Lerner, Cyrus Console, Gary Jackson, Amy Fleury, and Ed Skoog are among his Topeka peers who are publishing with national presses. Must be something in that riverwater. See this Lawrence Journal World link to Topeka poet Matthew Porubsky’s new book Fire Mobile: Sonnets (Woodley Memorial Press):  

As I read “Rebuilding Year,” I identified with the scenery and the life—I’ve written for a newspaper in Kansas, and I know the low-wages and long hours wrestling with concise syntax. But McHenry’s sentences are not Hemingway’s direct lines. He has a fascination for recursive wording—the way Topeka High repeats simply as “High” in this poem is just one example. He doubles back on himself often in other poems as well. Sounds revolve also, like the rhymes in the first stanza: “paper,” “dollars,” “hour,” “tower,” and “copper.” He is one of the few Americans to rhyme as effortlessly as the English poets. Nothing feels forced, and the sounds reinforce the theme of return.

The jolt of the poem is the great implosion scene, which sounds like a street “clearing its throat” and also creates an after image of debris, a “dust-edifice.” This is the Tarot card the Tower, with permanence upset by sudden explosion, parallel to the shift from childhood to adulthood. Reality changes quickly and with odd echoes. The “rebuilding” of the title is both a literal architecture and archetypal coming-of-age story, where loss is a natural extension of the process. The renewal of the town and the football team also is the renewal of this man’s psyche. The narrator, the solitary fan in the bleachers, becomes an apprentice poet producing this soliloquy—a t once part of and separate from the crowd. He chooses the lonely seat, the one with a view, and creates conversation with characters who seem familiar, but all the rules have changed. He play-acts being the authority figure as he rehearses for adulthood.

All of McHenry’s poems have wistful twists at the end. His book Potscrubber Lullabies (The Waywiser Press, 2006) includes poems that mostly reconcile loss with commitment to survival, and the tension sometimes creates understated humor. The unstated theme is hope. Like a good Kansan, McHenry is self-deprecating, and his own follies are what keep him humble. He tells wrenching tales, all with prickling awareness. In “Vanguard” he reaches across the years and speaks with the father of the jazz tenor saxophone, Coleman Hawkins, another Topekan:


Here’s what I remember: Coleman Hawkins
and I are sitting at a mahogany table
in the Village Vanguard, quietly talking.
He’s finished a set in which he was unable
to summon even one unbroken tone
from the bell of his once-clarion saxophone.
But now that’s over and he feels all right.
He’s smoking because he’s wanted to all night,
drinking cloudy cognac from a tumbler
and coughing ferociously; his voice is weaker
than his cough; he’s barely audible, mumbling
to me because he knows I’m from Topeka.
He says, “That’s where I learned to tongue my horn.”
I know, and that’s the only thing I hear.
It’s 1969; in half a year
he’ll be dead. In three years I’ll be born.

This is a ghost story, and the narrator keeps his secret to the end. He invests in imagination. He honors the amazing Hawk while simultaneously expressing compassion for the jazzman’s suffering. No word is more than three syllables, and most are two or one—a way to sustain emphasis. McHenry has a plainspoken vocabulary, like many Midwesterners (Stafford, Wright, Bly), which he uses to construct syntactical mazes that lead to genuine amazement.

See more about McHenry at these sites:
“I Don't Want to Live on the Moon,” essay by Eric McHenry for Richard Hugo House, 2009:
Kansas literature map page on Eric McHenry
Washburn University faculty bio

“Rebuilding Year” and “Vanguard” © Eric McHenry. Poems reprinted with permission of the poet