“Music of Things”: Robert Balun on Anthony McCann’s Thing Music


Anthony McCann’s Thing Music is a conversation between you and I. Thing Music is a texture, a place to hold and arrange the fragments of your life when it seems only noise. When everything is scattered, and everyone disembodied, McCann’s book is the kind of place where life can suddenly turn up in strange arrangement. Unspecified ‘you’-s and ‘I’-s float through McCann’s poems to offer an idea, a perspective, or a longing. I’ve always been a fan of this tactic, and I think it is the most lasting and relevant contribution of the New York School poets. McCann employs disconnection throughout his work. This, however, becomes common ground, and serves to unify us.

As people, we are increasingly cast as placeholders in society, lost amongst so much identity, meagerly defined by who we surround ourselves with. To this, I was happy to find these entities pulsing through Anthony’s poems, as anonymous as they are in real life.

Sometimes we transcend, and can be a voice or a presence, heard or manifested for a moment in the distance. Within these modern parameters, McCann’s work becomes the important artifact of existence, a record of our voice amongst the digital static background. From “Speaker”:

the scrolling face

there is

a real skull
and in the skull

a word
and sometimes

in that word
there is

a little throat

McCann finishes the poem with,

but my throat
is not my own

This poem functions really well as a set-up. McCann offers the mechanics of his inquiry. He gives us disembodiment. This is skillfully done, as it’s a disembodiment we all know, though don’t recognize until we catch glimpses of it in places like McCann’s poems.

Still, in the face of this anonymity, McCann searches for the real connectivity of existence; in the following poem, “Landscape for Brian Evenson,” he writes:

Sky-colored paint
paint covered with worms

you are my father
I said to the worms

You are my mother

You are the hair
of my throat
tasting dirt

These are poems of experience, of living mechanism, proof that our existence is being lived, proof built in words, words as consciousness and truth:

having crawled
with my feet

and then

You are my father
you are my mother
you are my sister
I said to the words

and this fly
on my knuckle
is love in the world

McCann gives us hope and trust in the beauty of existence in the face of our disturbed world. In the poems dedicated and addressed to defined people, we get this voice ringing out. From “Death Valley For Noelle”:

Friend, in my brain
you are this hidden face.

The rest is light and distance,
invisible as land.

This is a perfect description of where we reside, how our lives reverberate through the culture space, and how we can (only) occasionally reach each other. If you are so inclined, you can draw out this idea as advice, that we should always be reaching for each other in this way, though this is a conclusion that is not directly offered in Thing Music.

These poems describe the texture of our world, and how we move through it, how we disrupt the ether, or how it ripples around us, and how we search for each other. Though personal and experiential, McCann’s poems are stripped down, rendering an access, allowing us to experience their weirdness and incongruence. To me, this is a perfectly accurate way to describe existence, and the experience of walking through these poems with Anthony helps make you a little less lonely as a human.

And through these moments of disconnection and isolation (hidden inside a seeming infinity), when we don’t know who we are, genuine moments of connection, as in the writer thinking of someone specifically, emerge and are shared with the reader; although we don’t know the subject, only McCann’s voice, we share that connection, that genuine love. From “The City”:

afternoon       the place
                we become each other here

and again in “This Living Hand”:

Your fingers pressed into my skin,
leaving whispers,
little names, while night
prowled along the shoulders
of the handles of the chairs
There’s nothing like you in the world

Presence and identity are two of McCann’s primary concerns, while politics occupies the necessity of a third. In “Mouth Guitar” we get:

The Dow was up
13 points         NASDAQ

is a bad move
in any poem
                It courts


McCann draws attention to the problem of political poetry; he begs the fundamental question: how do we engage with politics in poetry? This feels like an increasingly important question for contemporary American poetry; how are we supposed to feel about the country we live in? We pay taxes, we read books, see movies, watch TV, look at art, all within the confines of America; we are Americans, so how do we confront ourselves? The risk is that political poetry falls into choir preaching, didactic yelling, or flat, ironic apathy.

McCann, to me, sums up our current political mindset quite well. From “Thing Music”:

in a sequence of bald disaffection
though the music is lovely and real.

I think this moment from “This Living Hand” offers an example of well-done politics:

And then we flow down all these grooves
and went back into the rooms
where the bodies get invisible,
and are objects of a quest.

Meanwhile in the cities,
the armored goons of state
have closed up all the cities and demanded,
with success, that the little people hide

or sweetly not exist,

This assessment is more incidental, blunt yet eloquent, surprising, but somehow something you’ve known all along, genuine insight.

The big question still lingers: what do we do about all of this? That’s unfair to ask of McCann, it’s what we need to ask ourselves, individually and collectively; it’s what we need to answer, individually, to take whatever steps (however, seemingly insignificant) toward that big, handsome answer.

I think what McCann does is offer us a landscape, a place to put our generally abstract and far-away wars, foreign policy, and indefensible image as a country. In the long piece, “Prodigals,” he writes:

… You’ll see a small deer

in the arms of the erased. Here is the river
where the capture of the deer, and the
forest and the war and the vast
gray poisoned lake.

and later in the poem,

and the cheese on the counter grows wet and more sick,
and the news day is slick
with more thoughtless heat

“Prodigals” is a beautiful poem to experience and get lost in, which seems to me to be McCann’s goal throughout his book. The eponymous “Thing Music” is excellent as well. Ideas flit in and out of these (and McCann’s work in general) and don’t quite reveal themselves, like scanning a radio for static in a liminal state.

All of this, ultimately, confronts identity. From “Fetishism”:

I really don’t know which thing could be me

From “Pleasure House”:

and defining your identity

After that I began to have eyes

The book ends with a series of long sequences (with a few concise entries in between), all of which offer whatever you’d like. For me, the following stood out as not only relevant to me, but important to McCann’s overall motivation and onus for his poems. From “This Living Hand”:

But now the music is sick
the planet is sick, the mud
vomits bones…

This much the hand described
before it turned too diaphanous,
too dispersed in what it touched
to be seen among the shapes
that the present tense allowed…

and beyond the pain to place:
a plate of light under the waves…
This is time
leaking through silt,
green light on the leaves,
the invisible beats…

Ultimately, one of the goals of poetry, I think, is to show possibility. To this, one of McCann’s greatest strengths is to offer the possibility that the noise and static of our lives can be arranged and composed into our own discordant music with whatever pitfalls, lessons and beauty lie there.

Thing Music, by Anthony McCann. Seattle, Washington: Wave Books. 128 pages. $18.00, paper.

Robert Balun is an MFA candidate at The City College of New York. His poems have appeared (or will soon) in Smoking Glue Gun, Shampoo, Specter, Word Riot, Heavy Feather Review, and others. He is one of the founders/curators of the Bushwick Sweethearts reading and art series.

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