[This is Part Two. You can read Part One here.]
“During the Night” echoes one of McKinney’s earlier poems, “Visiting My Gravesite: Talbott Churchyard, West Virginia”—another poem in which she takes an aerial view of her past and present life, almost rehearsing her own inevitable absence.
…Once I came in fast and low
in a little plane and when I looked down at the church,
the trees I’ve felt with my hands, the neighbors’ houses
and the family farm, and I saw how tiny what I loved or knew was,
it was like my children going on with their plans and griefs
at a distance and nothing I could do about it. But I wanted
to reach down and pat it, while letting it know
I wouldn’t interfere for the world, the world being
everything this isn’t, the unknown buried in the known.
McKinney is known as a “regional” writer, but her fluency in the language of place was enriched, antithetically, by her ability to see it as an outsider and, moreover, to write from the vertiginous place that is at once both “in” and “out.” To me, McKinney’s most memorable and powerful poems are those that linger in the in-between, and look through distance as if looking through a lens—part prism, part telescope, part two-way glass.
I feel a sudden chill of exposure—revelation—when I read “the trees I’ve felt with my hands.” As I feel it, this moment is a kind of out-of-body experience, a bit like seeing oneself on film, or hearing one’s voice piped through a speaker. Is that me? Who I’ve been all along? Who I am to others? Who am I? Only once it has been perforated, punctured, pierced by perspective does one realize how “home” has been like a second skin. What happens when you shed it? Goosebumps rise up on my own skin as I read these lines. Do you feel it too?
Let’s linger in this sensation for a while. In “I Have Gone Out” (from Have You Had Enough Darkness Yet?) McKinney once again looks through distance, but this time she’s looking out, not back. In many other poems, she regards such distances with a sense of longing—albeit a longing that is neither rueful nor forlorn. While “I Have Gone Out” is also neither rueful nor forlorn, it is resolved. The poem acknowledges that this particular distance is now irrevocable: “I have / removed myself / so far away I can’t come back,” she writes.
I have gone out to the red woods, and the gold,
staring into the unfenced distance, hearing
the inside of my body, pleading.
She goes on,
…I have gone further
out to the edge of the known farm,
piercing my way along through the brambles.
The tense in this poem is particularly poignant—the use of present-perfect “have gone” instead of “am gone” suggests that although the voice “can’t come back,” it does go on—however, it does not return. I am also struck, held, snagged by the line “piercing my way along through the brambles.” Piercing, not “leaving” or “departing” or “making my way.” Recognizing that it pierces even as it is itself pierced, the self assumes a kind of responsibility for all this dissociation. Long story short, this poem just tears me up. That is, it makes me feel torn, rent, riddled, shot through by space and time. It puts me in touch with the impasse that detachment can become.
Have You Had Enough Darkness Yet? is McKinney’s least “regional” book. If you didn’t know she was the state’s poet laureate, you might not readily place most of these poems in West Virginia. However, you would note the clear, honed voice and discerning, precise point of view. You would notice that the primary mode of these poems is description, aiming toward realism, unvarnished truth, and the dispelling of myths. But the myths this collection seeks to dispel are not only regional; rather, McKinney roots into the myths of intelligence, of womanhood, of medicine and cures, and of what it means to be sick. These are the poems of not just a regional writer (Who is “just” a regional writer, anyway?), but a writer who has lived in the borderlands: between Appalachia and “civilization,” between feminism and the patriarchal culture, between the life of a “normal” person and the life of an artist, between sickness and health. More interested in context than place, and what it means to be a human-in-and-between-places, McKinney’s poems speak from the junctures. She shows us how a poet finds her voice: by sending breath and light through the fissures in her identity.
McKinney’s “fluency in the language of place” means that her voice and ear are attuned to nuances that others might not readily perceive. Take for instance the subtle juncture on which her poem “Homage to Hazel Dickens” hinges. Dickens was a bluegrass singer and musician who left her home in southern West Virginia to sing its songs elsewhere in the world. In this poem, McKinney channels Dickens and they speak in unison on the verge of departure—Dickens’s departure for the start of her career in Baltimore, and McKinney’s departure for the unknown. “Whether I go or stay the pain will be the same, so now I’m picking up / my suitcase with the leather handle,” she writes—“and now I’m waving to you all.” Dickens/McKinney rationalizes her choice to physically leave home on the grounds that she has already left it—“lost it”—in the way that she sees the place:
Whether we go or stay, we’ve lost it.
The porch, the cold crocks of cream in the cellar,
the redbone hound in the yard, the wild azaleas all orange
and sweet, we’ve lost it standing here looking at it
this way. So we should turn our faces outward
from this place, string our guitars, and go.
This irrevocable shift in perspective yields its own kind of grief and longing. Alas, it is true: you can’t go home again. Yet, while innocence is lost, power is gained in choosing how you see your life—a poetic power that can save if not your flesh-and-blood life, then the meaning of your life.
This poetic power saves McKinney again and again, even as she becomes dissociated from her own weary, broken body. In “Near Midnight,” for instance, she describes how her body has become an “it.” When she writes, “it is a fiction to pretend it is mine when it has so clearly / been handed over to those who process it,” one can almost see her in another little plane, coming in “fast and low,” parting the air between self and other, self and body.
And now the body is so bruised and punctured
and the flesh is ravaged from all the ports and
lines into veins and transplants and biopsies
that it becomes necessary to prop or lean
it against any available surface or table edge,
against countertops and cabinet doors, just to
keep it upright, and now we find it is
necessary to forego ownership of the body, so
that it becomes The Body, not my body,
because the connection is damaged and
Yet, this dissociated perspective opens a creative, generative space for her to actually empathize with the cancer cells that have “colonized” her bones. Unlike other patients who are inclined to see cancer cells as enemies in a kind of battle, McKinney writes,
…I think they’re
just mistaken, the patients and the cells alike.
Someone took a wrong turn, and the others
followed. Cells make mistakes like we do.
One made a chemical error and misled
the others to a torn place inside the DNA,
a thorn, a laceration in the mind, and
millions more lined up behind.
Rupture yields both losses and gains. While there are risks in a broadened perspective—possibly even the loss of life as you know it—so are there rewards: a new way of knowing, a more refined and possibly more true meaning.
Initially, when I started writing this piece, I comforted myself in thinking about the cyclicality of life—the notion that no one ever truly leaves us, because they return to the earth and live on in the work they’ve left behind. But I think McKinney might quibble with that notion a bit; she would look for the trouble, the crux. In “The Outsider Speaks,” she asks,
…How could I ever be
what you’d call civilized, when I don’t want it,
never have, never will.
“No way I’ll ever / join the circle,” she goes on to say. “Please understand I can’t.” On the surface, this poem seems to be about social or artistic circles, cliques, and clubs; however, McKinney also seems to be making a more essential argument for the “line” over the “circle.” “I never end,” she writes. “I run on and on in my head / and in my belly.” She is not comforted by the artificial narrative of closure, or coming full circle, so to speak. Hazel Dickens couldn’t go home again. McKinney couldn’t un-see or un-feel “how tiny what I loved or knew was” when seen from afar. Cancer is not truly a battle for anyone to win; if the cancer cells are to be blamed for anything, it is for mindlessly following their leader. Indeed, McKinney is skeptical of the deadening repetition of unconscious patterns, “having seen in my brief forays / into predictability that there’s no percentage / in it,” she writes in “Legs.” Therefore, in Have You Had Enough Darkness Yet?, McKinney draws a distinction between dwelling in the body and dwelling in the mind. To dwell in one’s mind is to obsess, to turn in circles before coming to rest, “like the dog, ritually turning / around six times before lying down” despite the fact that “There’s no nest there, that necessity / disappeared thousands of years ago” (“Brass Bowl, Wooden Striker”). On the other hand, to dwell in the body is to move in pursuit of desire, guided only by hunger and insatiability. Dwelling in the body, even the broken body, is to progress and move forward, even when your ultimate destination remains unknown, “coaxing / the pattern to relief,” as she wrote in “To My Reader” (which was originally published in our Kenyon Review).
In the book’s penultimate poem, “In House,” we feel McKinney dwelling in the body, and moving ever forward, toward the edge of distance. At this point, as her “bones are breaking down, / hard bones dissolving into honeycomb” (“Give It”), she sees how the essential act of dwelling, in her house, in her body, is her life’s ultimate challenge and ultimate relief: “What I remember / of my time inside is the salt, / dripping down my cheeks.” Salt, she writes, “is a cleansing wash, and salt / is in every cut in your body.” McKinney describes her deliberate efforts to keep on dwelling, trying
to pass into my rooms, to find
the rooms within the rooms,
the house the house lives in,
the gradual home.
While it is not difficult to imagine rooms nested within rooms, “the house the house lives in” is a twist of language that baffles even as it feels utterly true. To understand, we must dwell in the language, and to allow it to dwell in our own bodies. In the last lines of the book, McKinney writes, “Hold me, / and pass me on. House me, / and bring me home.” And so I am. Sending her body of words out—out of this world and into your own hearts, minds, bodies—knowing that we find in poetry the power to make our own meaning.