On Sunday, as you’ve heard from this blog before, The Writer’s Center will host Poet Lore‘s 119th birthday party. The featured poets are A.B. Spellman & Gardner McFall. In the next two days I’m going to take a look at their work on this blog, starting with McFall’s.
She has a selection of poems in the new edition of Poet Lore (she was introduced by poet Jane Shore as part of the Poets Introducing Poets series), and I want to concentrate on two of these terrific poems.
In “Stopping at the True, The Good, The Beautiful Company in Bac Ninh” the speaker is visiting Vietnam. Emotions of guilt (of both the personal and the public variety) play into it: “After a cruise on the Halong Dream,/ the guide informs us we will stop/at a typical silk and embroidery store,/only not exactly typical, since/ its employees are orphans and children/maimed by war after their mothers, exposed/ to Agent Orange, bore them.”
Robert Olen Butler’s Pulitzer Prize winning collection of stories, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain , depicts Vietnamese characters in the U.S. Here, by contrast, an American is transported to Vietnam. What’s striking here is the tender way McFall connects the speaker’s history with that of her father’s (and by extension American history with that of Vietnam’s). “I buy a dozen, each with a scene/ of Vietnam, carefully stitched/ in thread so fine the eyes could dim/ putting it there: a woman wearing/ her conical hat with her buffalo/ in a field of rice, which my father saw/ and knew, high and small, from the air.”
The supple juxtapositon of imagery in this poem continues in the next poem, “My Father Meets Amelia Earhart,” as if the two poems are meant to be together. In the concluding line of “Stopping” we find the speaker’s father “high and small, from the air” and in the opening sequence of “My father” we find a jarring image: “After my father’s plane crashed in the Pacific,/I used to think how sad that he was alone/ when he died.”
In this poem, the speaker’s father shares coincidences (like dying in an airplane at the age of 39) and eternity with the famed aviator Amelia Earhart, “death-wed too early, like Icarus./ They could talk shop–his Skyhawk/ versus her Electra, compare hops and their DFCs,/play rummy.”
As in “Stopping,” the conclusion of this poem is stunning in how it twines the historical with the personal. Two lives, one famous, one not become “legends in people’s minds.”
About Gardner McFall:
Her poems have appeared in such publications as Plougshares, The Atlantic Monthly, Tin House, Poet Lore, the Sewanee Review, the New Yorker, The Paris Review, Southwest Review, and others. She has two books of poetry, The Pilot’s Daughter and the forthcoming Russian Tortoise. She lives in New York City and teaches at Hunter College.
Meet her this Sunday and get your own copy of Poet Lore, where these poems and others appear, at The Writer’s Center at 2p.m.