For emerging poets, the pressure to have a first book published can be immense. Submitting to journals and magazines is already a laborious task, and if you couple this with entering full-length manuscript competitions or querying university presses, the endeavor becomes almost off-putting, overwhelming for any poet at any stage in their career. There is always comfort, however, in knowing that certain writers received their break later in life (Toni Morrison at 39, Robert Frost at 40), and within the contemporary American poetic landscape, there is a lot to be learned, admired, and emulated in Owen McLeod, who after a 25-year hiatus, began writing poetry again in 2014. The age of a writer isn’t necessarily relevant and doesn’t always equate with merit. For McLeod’s debut collection Dream Kitchen (University of North Texas Press), however, the poems permeate with maturity, wisdom, and the confident casualness of a writer who has navigated the victories and struggles of everyday life.
McLeod’s collection begins with the portrait of a recently divorced or separated middle-aged man, one with armpit stains, Big Mac breath, and an imagination that puts him at the center of a narrative that is more cinematic that it actually is. With nothing else to think about but the past, the man in “In The U-Haul Parking Lot” remembers his ex’s two cats, Squishy and Sam, and the burden placed upon him for having to endure their presence, even their names when, after sex, the man and his ex would pretend to be them. Characteristic of the collection as a whole, McLeod reins in descriptions of the ordinary (or in this case the not-so-ordinary) and arrives at a scene that lingers long after the poem has finished:
You’ll forget about them, as you do with anything
you live with long enough. But you’re not worried
about that right now. You’re noticing the highway,
how the cars are just cans, how each can contains
a heart, how each heart—that soft and solitary pump—
throbs in a darkness never broken.
There is a sense in this poem that, no matter how good we believed our lives to be, we will eventually find that it never measured up to our expectations. This sentiment again plays out in “Cumulus Mediocris,” wherein the speaker realizes that “Knowledge of having lived the wrong life” will not appear to us as something divine or visually epiphanic:
You’ll simply wait for the knowledge
to pass, like the shadow of a lone cloud,
cold and colossal, darkening the valley—
hushing the blackbirds, stunning the bees,
covering the ground on which you stand,
sweeping through you without a sound,
then crossing over the mountains to the sea.
Regardless of where we end up, we do so in McLeod’s poems with the feeling that we have no choice but to hold our heads up high, if only for ourselves. Nowhere in the collection do we find regret; instead we encounter recognition of shortcomings and the cold hard fact that sometimes we neither get what we want nor what we need.
Not all of McLeod’s poems are grounded in reality, with a few leaning toward the realm of absurdity. One of the most notable in the collection is “In My Wife’s Vegetable Garden.” The speaker discovers his head amongst an array of vegetables. The head matures, and the speaker’s wife helps it grow as much as possible, becoming quite attached to it:
I went to the window. In the moonlight, I saw
my wife lying on her stomach, chin in hands,
talking to my head as if to a college sweetheart.
I wanted to know what she was saying to me,
and what I was saying to her, but I couldn’t
make it out. I watched as they carried on,
just the two of them, my wife and my head.
One can’t help but think of James Tate’s later work with narratives and scenes such as these. We, as readers, must accept that the impossible is happening before our eyes, and it is when we do that we see the possible meanings behind the head, how it symbolizes a separate consciousness, one that the speaker doesn’t have access to. The head, like any vegetable, dies in winter, and the speaker’s wife brings it into the house, too devastated to answer her husband’s questions as to whether she would try to grow it again.
This same absurdity is found in “Triceratops ♥ You,” wherein a triceratops (yes, the dinosaur) takes center stage. The triceratops becomes the embodiment of the average person, experiencing everyday events (sitting in a waiting room, waiting in the Dunkin’ Donuts drive-thru, reading the news), and because it has lived in two eras, it “loves [us] because it knows / what extinction means.” Although we might expect a revelatory remark at the end, McLeod doesn’t deliver, and it isn’t his obligation to give us a heavy dose of solace (if you’ve read up to this poem in the collection, page 57, you shouldn’t wait around for one). Instead, McLeod finishes the poem by saying “It means not a thing. / It means enjoy the ice cream.”
While enjoying the ice cream, McLeod also examines certain mentalities and attitudes permeating American culture. “Click Here to Get Ripped” takes a microscope to the ways in which males in our society, sensing that luck and divine love aren’t always on their side, are enticed by creating a body that has worth and importance in the future. Young males who are tempted by Internet protein powders to gain muscle will inevitably find themselves smoking hash with a janitor named Randall who’s a bit on the conservative side:
What Randall doesn’t understand
is that America is Jesus, that Jesus
isn’t coming back, that when Jesus
leaves your heart he leaves it worse
than he found it—punched-in walls,
rooms crammed with fast food bags,
plumbing & electric shot to shit.
Meanwhile, millions of adolescent boys,
keenly sensing where the future’s at,
set their sights on getting ripped.
Don’t forget the heart’s a muscle, lads.
We’re here to help with that.
The problem is that many don’t seek help for that, and we end up with a whole group of men who have yet to work the heart’s emotional side, the part that would allow, according to the speaker, a recognition of other societal priorities.
Poetry collections can often have two intended purposes: inspire societal and emotional change, and capture sentiments and experiences surrounding places, people, and moments in the past or present. The extent to which Dream Kitchen is compelling people to take to the streets or center their lives around its poetic gospel has yet to be seen, but there is no doubt that the poems will move you in some way and that the manner in which McLeod describes everyday life, in all its glory and failures, is enough to make you reexamine yours, which, if that’s all it does, still achieves what great poetry should.