The grief wrangler

Joshua McKinney lures untamable loss into poetic form in his award-winning new book, The Novice Mourner

Joshua McKinney and his prizewinning tome.

Joshua McKinney and his prizewinning tome.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Readers and critics who loved Joshua McKinney’s first book of poetry, Saunter, may wonder what’s happened to him when they pick up his newest collection. The Novice Mourner, which won the Dorothy Brunsman Poetry Prize and was published late last month by Bear Star Press, is a departure from McKinney’s earlier avant-garde style.

“They’re really night and day,” McKinney said of the two books. He characterized Saunter as having a postmodern affinity. “Some called it ‘elliptical,’” he said with a chuckle. The Novice Mourner takes a more traditional, narrative approach in the majority of its poems. People who raved about the first book will, he said, “probably be scratching their heads, wondering what happened, when they read the new book.” But, he said, laughing, “Those who skewered the first book will probably say, ‘He’s seen the light!’”

McKinney’s office at California State University, Sacramento, is both tidy and welcoming, with a pair of comfortable chairs designed to put students at ease. Hired to replace the retiring former poet laureate of Sacramento, Dennis Schmitz, McKinney has settled in quickly, recently earning tenure and a promotion to associate professor of English. On a recent morning, when McKinney spoke with SN&R about the publication of his new book, the office was sunlit. McKinney’s easy, boyish laugh filled it often as he draped his lanky, athletic body over his chair. An avid outdoorsman and fencer, McKinney is definitely the kind of guy who doesn’t take himself too seriously. Nonetheless, The Novice Mourner is certain to attract some serious attention.

As its title suggests, The Novice Mourner is a collection of poems that explore the nature of grief and loss. While the styles of the individual poems vary widely and cover a lot of ground in terms of form, they have in common a deeply elegiac tone. In addition to poems about his late father, to whom the book is dedicated, there are examinations of what it means to live with the inevitability of mortality and loss.

“These are poems that chronicle my coming to grips with my father’s death, which was very untimely,” said McKinney. “I’ve already outlived him by a year.” But it wasn’t his intention to write a book of poems about grief. Although the loss of his father was the catalyst for McKinney to begin writing poetry as a young man, these poems came together over 15 years.

The Novice Mourner was the title of my dissertation,” he said, “but it’s gone through so many permutations that it’s not recognizable as the dissertation anymore.” McKinney, who grew up in rural Northern California, spent six years in Georgia as a faculty member at Valdosta State University. Then, he said, his writing was in “an experimental or postmodern phase.” After returning to California, he began to write poems in a more narrative form and about his father. “Maybe it was the landscape or something,” he said, laughing.

“A lot of the catalysts for the poems are just fragmentary memories,” McKinney said, explaining his take on poetic license. “You remember things inaccurately, or in fragments, so there’s a lot of creation.” He quoted Richard Hugo: “You don’t owe the facts anything; you owe the poem everything.”

McKinney’s “Gun,” a prose poem about the history of a family-owned pistol, is one in which he took some liberties with the facts in order to be true to the work. “I departed from the facts in ways that I will have to explain when my mother reads it,” he admitted, “which she will be doing any day now.”

What’s most intriguing about The Novice Mournerin addition to the obvious care for the language—is the way McKinney showcases a variety of forms. A careful reader will see well-wrought examples of everything from a slightly modified villanelle to a rondeau, with a couple of prose poems and a wrong sonnet thrown in for good measure.

“I have a bias against a trend that others have complained about in late 20th-century verse,” McKinney said, “and that is the sort of flaccid free verse that’s really just prose chopped into lines.” It’s a trend he’s avoided, even in his prose poems, by careful crafting. For example, the prose poem “A Principle of Perspective” began in blank verse—a poem written in unrhymed iambic pentameter, most familiar as the form used by Shakespeare in many of his plays. McKinney thought he’d finished the poem and began sending it out, only to have it rejected.

“I don’t necessarily always trust editorial judgment,” McKinney said. But in this case, he let the poem sit for a while. Then, one afternoon, he decided to tinker with it. “I wondered what would happen if I put it in prose form,” he said, “and bang! It was right.” Perhaps it’s because the poem was originally in blank verse that it retains a formal grace, a lean rhythm, as in this passage:

It’s a clear morning and the chores are underway. In the feed lot some border has been crossed, and a son stands face to face with his father—at the distance no human voice can bridge, the distance lovers whisper promises. Something in their stance is wrong, too still, too tense. It’s hard to read precisely what it is that sends his mother running from the hen house, her apron full of eggs.

McKinney’s interest in formalism has developed over the last decade. “I wasn’t schooled in formalism,” he said, confessing that, not only did some of his professors bad-mouth formalism, but he was also guilty of the crime. But he decided that “if I was going to dis it, I should know how to do it right.” He began to study formalism on his own. “Lo and behold,” he said, “it opened up a whole new world for me.”

One of the advantages of spending a decade-and-a-half on many of these poems, and of being willing to return to them, was that McKinney was able to approach them with new eyes. “What it allowed me to do,” he said, “was to return to the same or similar subjects—obsessions, if you will—in different modes.” These different modes are not merely formal, but also psychological. “When you’re under the constraints of a villanelle, or a sonnet, of rhyme and meter,” McKinney noted, “you have to deal with your subject a little differently.”

An example of form working with subject can be found in “Fort-Da,” a poem that takes its title from one of Freud’s case studies. It’s a variation of peekaboo; in Freud’s case, a boy would “hide” his toys (fort) and then “find” them (da). In McKinney’s deft hands, the poem uses the myth of Actaeon and a game of peekaboo to explore a father’s grief at his own mortality and his grief in knowing that someday his little daughter will know her own as well.

… This game will teach her
to conceal her disappointment on that day
when his palms will part, as if from prayer,
and nothing is revealed. No thing can stay
this transformation; she cannot lie there
wrapped in bunting near the hearth, and he
cannot stop hunting for the words that summon
to common membership yet remain free.
Volition is consumed by repetition: …

The poem began, McKinney said, as a sonnet. “After the first eight lines or so, it was quite clear to me that it was not going to contain the subject matter.” Rather than scrap the form, he held on to the Shakespearean form but made it twice as long. The result is a measured, subtle approach to a poem that otherwise might seem quite busy; as McKinney noted, the poem has “several balls in the air,” with its allusion to myth and references to Freud.

But readers shouldn’t fear that craft makes McKinney’s poems difficult, frightening or inaccessible. While some of the poems make use of word-play and sound-based structures that are generally called postmodern, there are also poems like “Altered House,” which is astonishing in both its simplicity and emotional depth.

It’s a poem McKinney is particularly fond of, written about his cat. “We lost this poor old cat just over two years ago,” he said. “It’s losing a family member as far as I’m concerned.” The catalyst for writing “Altered House” was reading an article about a Virginia Woolf novel in which the critic discussed the spatial aspects of grief. McKinney explained, “Whenever someone dies and is gone, our spatial conceptions, in our homes and elsewhere, are altered; it’s like moving your furniture around. It’s physical; reality collapses.” Although he’d noticed that physical response to grief after his father’s death, it came to the surface again with the loss of his cat, which was, he said, “a real lap-sitter”:

Animal annexed to my body,
jet where my palm struck sparks,
sleepy piece of electricity
so impossibly gone now
her lost body remains—
demanding phantom of my inconvenience.

Both in the power of the loss and in what McKinney called the “confessional” approach, which openly acknowledges the self-centered nature of grief, this is a simple poem that takes risks. “What is it that we really mourn when we lose someone?” he asked. “Do we mourn them, or are we mourning our own loss?”

These are hard questions to ask, impossible to answer and incredibly suited to the full exploration given them in The Novice Mourner.