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Ruth Foley on Gary L.

McDowell
I suppose its possible to talk about Gary L. McDowells Weeping at a Strangers Funeral
without talking about space, but Im not sure why Id want to. Dont get me wrongtheres
plenty of good stuff going on here, from McDowells use of collage to pull together lines from
disparate sources to the suggestion and imagery in the poems themselves to the ways in which he
moves from the intimate to the grand, sometimes so smoothly that I was left wondering how I
got from one to the other.
But before Id made it through the first poem in this collection, I knew I wanted to talk about
space, and when I got to the Bachelard reference in Vegetable Garden (To the great dreamers
of holes / nothing is ever empty), it was all over but the typing. Bachelard comes in early, by the
wayif you fell in love with The Poetics of Space the way I did, you wont need a lot of
patience before being reminded of that love. McDowells book is built on references such as this,
from Bachelard to Kafka to Dickinson, lines McDowell pulled from his reading every morning
and wrote from and towards in the night while he rocked his colicky daughter. We are all of us a
combination of our sources, I suppose, but I have to admit to being glad I didnt know about this
collective aspect of the poems before I read the book the first time. I would likely have made a
game of it, trying to suss out the source material or deciding whether it fit. McDowell doesnt
hide his processhe italicizes his borrowed termsso it was clear early on he was sometimes
appropriating lines, but some of them fit so seamlessly they could be a voice in the ear of the
speaker and only that. For me, learning about the source material after the fact allowed the
poems to stand on their own, and allowed me to come to the poems on my own terms rather than
through my knowledge (or lack thereof) of Ashbery or OHara or Sexton, and its a stance I
prefer for initial readings. I once saw a collage where the artist used the text from a review of a
hotel to create the texture of the building materials on the wall of the image of that hotel. The
realization was a slowly-dawning one, and as I leaned closer to read the text, I felt the impact of
the collage itself deepen a bit. Seeing the reference to Maggie Nelsons Bluets in Of Notes had
much the same effect on me. Oh, of course, I thought, as suddenly the poem opened to take in
a bit of Nelsons own expressions of loss and loneliness, and then I was glad for the knowledge.
Maybe I shouldnt have told you, either, but there you have it.
That opening poem, though, Nashville. It lets us know what to expect from the collection: it
consists of single lines and couplets separated by white space. It presents images in vignettes so
brief they could be lit by a flicker of lightning on a dark night orand this is how I feel them
as if were sitting in a country motel room whose only illumination comes from headlights
passing by. Glimpse, breath. Glimpse, breath. McDowell also gives us dependent clauses with
nothing to hang them on: When its too hot for coffee // When the willow tree signs goodbye,
hello, SOS is one pair of them. My favorite is Shes why anger isnothing follows these
clauses grammatically. Space follows these clauses.
He uses the same technique to even greater effect in Vegetable Garden:
I dig in the garden until my elbows

I love in the garden until the moon


Rose bushes and the neighborhood cat
I work until
I spray for bugs until my eyes
The clauses suggest and float, they give us room to speculate and wonder. Somehowvia black
magic?they do not annoy or cling. Where in less-capable hands they might feel like a
gimmick, McDowell actively encourages the space to do its own work, and I was more than
content to follow.
These three ways of experiencing spacewhite space, glimpses, floating clausesdrive many
of the poems in the book.
In the first line of the second poem, Museum, McDowell tells us, All lies have basic truths in
common. Question everything, he says. Or maybe, Listen up, folks, cause Im about to tell
some whoppers. Does he? Im not sure. I find the poems credible, perhaps because, like all good
lies, they dont try to get too specific. They leave me room to fill in my own details, and what
could be more convincing? [P]aper means lightning, he says, means porch lights, // means
ghosts. Im left wondering a bit why paper means these things, but the world needs a bit more
wonder, doesnt it?
All this space creates some other effects. For instance, when most of the one- or two-line stanzas
are complete thoughts, and when this completeness is emphasized by the lack of end
punctuation, we rest more delicately on the thoughts that do overrun the stanzas. Take, for
example, Of Words, which begins, What can I say about this afternoons rain: // either we
cant see / the horizon // or we are the horizon. Similarly, when so few lines end in commas, we
pay attention to them when they arrive. Every piece of punctuation feels carefully considered,
but never coy or self-conscious. McDowell is building an atmosphere as much as an image, and
while I admit to a tendency to find such atmosphere irritating, I have no such issue with Weeping
at a Strangers Funeral. You can judge for yourself whether that means he handles such
questions exceedingly well or Im just going soft.
One final word on the formal considerations of space in this work: occasionally, McDowell uses
white space within a line to create an aside, such as this line in Lullaby:
My always-eye on the whore

Theres always a whore

Perhaps this is where that inner voice I was talking about earlier makes itself known, but perhaps
not. There are times (To John Ashbery, or Step-mother, for example) where that mid-line
white space is more expected, more in keeping with the presented voice of the speaker. And for
me, this is where the strength of McDowells use of space lies: as cohesive as this collection is, it
never feels as if he is bound by stylistic or formal decisions he made in other poems. None of it
feels bound, if were going to be honest about it. The space he incorporates opens everything
upthe lines, the poems, the pauses when I turn the page. Coming to the end of this book is like

the instant when a hot air balloonor maybe a whole field of themlifts almost imperceptibly
off the ground. The basket is still brushing the grass. We could jump overboard at any time and
land perfectly comfortably. Or we could, with just one more breath, be opened to all sorts of
possibilities.