Ruminating on alternate paths, detailed speculation on choices not made, and a darkly comic melancholy characterize J.G. McClure’s debut poetry collection The Fire Lit & Nearing. The tone of these poems when they are most successful is casual crafting surreal responses to the mundane facts of living. From the opening poem ‘Odyssey II’ imagining an Ithaca where Odysseus and Ithaca have grown beyond each other to ‘Chaos Is Seattle in a Spaniel’ where the title “is what my phone thinks / I’m saying when I say // ¿que haces si hablo // en espanol?” McClure is exploring a world where his persona knows “[t]his evidence of something” (‘Making Sense of It’), and asks “[s]o what should we do? Take an odd-but-not-unexpected turn / to the personal, brandishing out little jagged bones?” His answer is always, “We could try out other facts.”
These other facts certainly entertain as in the prose poem ‘The Cat’ where the tribute brought by a housecat quickly escalates into a kind of terrified deity worship:
Now she’s dragging down the sun for us. The air gets hotter every day. Eggs boil inside their shells; pigeons burn mid-flight—but she looks so happy coming near, fire shimmering in her eyes.
Weeping, doomed, we lay out her favorite treats. In the end, there’s only love.
Or in ‘A Nature Poem’ where the efficiency of an ant hive mind isn’t anthropomorphized as grim pragmatism but rather as quotidian mortality:
Live ants know dead ants
by the smells of their decay:
they drag each corpse away
to keep disease outside the nest.
So if you daub a live ant
with harmless oleic acid, the rest
believe beyond all doubt
it’s dead, and must be carried out.
The nothing—not writhing
or jaws or mad legs tearing—
none of that beats the instinct,
exact and chemical,
that knows what it knows.
These poems move readers incrementally from a dissonance towards clarity. But for what purpose? Throughout The Fire Lit & Nearing, McClure’s persona wrestles with loss brooding over the dissolution of a relationship with ‘Ellie.’ This makes the weakest poems in the collection dangerously close to break-up poems and as such flirtatiously purple: “Two ships sinking. Recidivist, I know, / to compare them to us. But the crews were lonely—” (‘Self-Portrait With Ellie at Sea’). However, these poems still possess enough self-deprecation to manage to be aware of the urge to be overly maudlin as in ‘Little Anger Poem’: “Poor fucked-up McClure, stop fucking up,” or “There would be no misery my fist / & feathered hair can’t fix. My name // tough and simple as a knobbed club, / say Dirk or Viper” (‘Portrait of My Longings as B Movie Script’). Thus, we can forgive McClure for writing so many poems reliant on synonyms for ‘sad.’
It is the poetic persona’s self-awareness and refusal to affix some kind of violent blame that most allows such poems to success and, to a certain extent, charm. The strongest poems of the collection are those eagerly pondering transmutation like ‘Genesis’: “what I like to think of // is the spawn of its spawn of its spawn: the first landfish / that could no longer breathe water, wasn’t really / a landfish at all. It must have felt, still, the ocean’s pull, // an instinct more bottomless than instinct.” Here is where McClure shines as his nimble mind creates not so much surreal but eccentric imagery whose metaphors excite or agitate readers. The Fire Lit & Nearing is a debut whose voice is consistent and unique, filled with animated poetry.
The Fire Lit & Nearing, by J.G. McClure. Brooklyn, New York: Indolent Books, May 2018. 78 pages. $14.99, paper.
Daniel Casey has a MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Notre Dame. His poems and reviews have appeared in Jet Fuel Review, Rise Up Review, Tuck Magazine, Waxing & Waning, North of Oxford, Heavy Feather Review, Tupelo Quarterly, and JMWW. For now, he lives Kentucky.