Rigger Death & Hoist Another is Laura McCullough’s fifth book of poetry (not counting two chapbooks). It is a collection of material previously published in a wide array of venues, sometimes reworked and retitled. While some take a more abstract turn, the poems are generally straight-forward, though not always simplistic. The statements are linear and progress from one to the other mostly without great leaps: almost-stories, episodes which are unafraid to use theses and ask questions outright; for the clearest statement of fact may yet imply, just as insinuative understatement may seem obvious, even cliched. A plain statement of feeling, the mere mention of an object—both can provide the spark for exploratory thinking. There is neither the need nor requirement for poetry to be oblique or limit itself to suggestion and hints. McCullough opts to use paced and careful cumulative sentences of clear meaning, cutting a path and looking over the course she’s taken.
Thematically, the poems are fairly diverse; human tragedy shares space with the experience of a trip to the hairdresser. To say the overall mood is dark would not be not a stretch, (the epigraphs prepare the reader for such,) but thorough pessimism is not found. Instead the reader is regularly reminded of the small, the fact that a minor fetish for memento can sometimes soothe more effectively than all the analysis in the world; that explanation is no more likely to assuage bitter absurdities than is an objectively insignificant moment of comfort; that one goes on, not necessarily because there is the promise of a safe reward, rather because there is no point in not doing so; that the appearance of insignificance may work both ways, to both the bad and the good.
One could say the language is mostly quotidian. Depending on their experience, some readers might find the work unadventurous. What risk McCullough has undertaken is less a matter of experimental wordplay (though some of that is present) and more a matter of self-expression: thoughts, feelings, personal history concerning family, marriage, society, and a world about which we know so much yet which doesn’t seem to care whether we know or not.
The textual arrangement is somewhat unconventional, but also does not vary a great deal in concept. Most often a first line hoists the rest of the stanza, the sections like a row of flags jutting out over a sidewalk. It feels like the form is arranged to accommodate the words, not the other way around. The phrases are given space to suggest rhythm when there appears to be no strict cadence, as though the words were spoken.
This vocal, almost dramatic quality usually plays to the poems’ strength, that is the direct gaze and clear vision set upon whatever comes along. This vision sees what it sees, but its operator is not always sure what to make of its report. Some of the poems convey a real wisdom, some an anxious longing for more, for that transient state of mind which demands no explanation when present, whose absence requests nothing but itself; wisdom, whose suggestions might lead to distress, whose silence heralds surreality and the grotesque. Days and hours pass through fingers like the leaves of a flip-book, each page the same dimensions, but what breadth of scenery from cover to cover, how often familiar, and how often nevertheless alien.
Rigger Death & Hoist Another, by Laura McCullough. New York, New York: Black Lawrence Press. 80 pages. $14.00, paper.
J.Y. Hopkins lives in Virginia and writes a little bit of everything. His work has appeared.