Hardscrabble

Haines Eason

Hardscrabble
by Kevin McFadden
University of Georgia
2008
$16.95

Wanting in seriousness but not in any respects lacking for vivacious word-play, Kevin McFadden’s Hardscrabble is an honest, agile, yet at times bulky debut. It’s so ranging a collection that no handful of lines will summarize its intent. If the collection has a weakness, it is that it suffers from want of omission.

Loosely, the book concerns itself with McFadden’s birth home Ohio and current home Virginia, and their historical bedrocks. McFadden then shatters that foundation into a sharp scree of contemporary ruminations that, mixed with a conglomerate of modern politics, social concerns, and pop-isms, produces an earthy milieu of long and short, linked and independent poems. Some of the best of it, however, is more removed from that formula. Here’s an excerpt from “A French Statue”:

Liberty’s so high up, you think—you expected her
down-to-earth. No such luck, you clasp
at your mother’s skirt. She knows this place
where names get changed, some by accident,

some not, where immigrants learn a new sur-
or as you’ll see here, a last. You’re next. Your
name. Your next of kin. Next, you’ll learn,
is how to move lines (not queues) no matter what

that kind Irish passenger taught you. Next,
please. Next. And this city you heard of but
a year ago as your parents explained in Hungarian.
Soon enough you’ll be in school, they’ll ask

what you speak and Magyar, you’ll repeat
Mud-your—a tongue pronounced with mud.
Hungary you’ll learn for its own pun by first
Thanksgiving. Turkey you will learn to stuff.

Certainly not Language poetry (the rest is much more dense than that above), and not completely pun/play-centered either, Hardscrabble tightropes between an ironic stance toward, and heartfelt interest in, pasts both personal and national. While “A French Statue” signals guard-dropping sincerity, the ironic finds root just as often if not more:

The mountains place their winter want-ad for a pastoralist. I don’t
apply; it’s words from here to home. I don’t know much Italian,
another family language paved over. I do know Dante once punned
the Italian for a man, omo, with the appearance of a human face: eye,
nostrils, eye. In the Divine Comedy, he greets a friend whose m, he
says, he would recognize anywhere. I tilt my head back and try to read
the man in the rearview mirror. Pray for the Fool’s Paradise.

This comes from a rambling sequence tape-recorded by McFadden while en route from Virginia to Ohio. Touching on everything from Seneca to road construction, it is entitled “It’s Tarmac,” which is apt for the collection: Hardscrabble is a collection unafraid to rearrange the matter of language. Sledging right for the framing, McFadden easily unsettles blocks of sense, and excavates bricked-over portals still as serviceable as ever.

Haines Eason’s poems appear in The Yale Review, New England Review, Cimarron Review and Smartish Pace. He was a finalist for the 2007 Ruth Lilly Fellowship, and the 2008 Third Coast Poetry Award.

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