Irene McKinney: Review by Kate Fox


McKinney Book Photo


Have You Had Enough Darkness Yet? by Irene McKinney (West Virginia Wesleyan College Press)


I always read the poems of Irene McKinney (1939-2012) with a sense of amazement, wonder, and surprise. But it wasn’t until these lines in her third collection, Six O’Clock Mine Report, that I realized her brilliance: “I wouldn’t interfere for the world, the world being//everything this isn’t, this unknown buried in the known.” What Paul Eluard identified when he wrote, “There is another world and it is in this one,” was a sense that McKinney embraced early on; in her first book, Girl with a Stone in Her Lap, McKinney writes in “Groundhog” of a “A dense shape inside the shape,/a dark, other body inside the hide.” It is this “dense shape inside the shape,” like breath in the body, that guides most of McKinney’s poems as they sail through her favorite themes: art, nature, family relationships, illness, feminist concerns, sense of place, Eastern religions, and impending death. And though the language of the poems provides the anchor, language never becomes an end to itself, as it does for many poets of her generation. As the speaker claims in “After Lear,” “If there is a pure word it dies at birth/before it takes/even one breath, or sounds its birth cry.” In McKinney’s work, nothing is pure, and, ironically, that’s what makes it so purely human.

     It is this human element that makes McKinney’s final collection, Have You Had Enough Darkness Yet?, so robust, so moving, so full of surprises, and so wistfully sad. In many ways, McKinney’s poems remind me of Sylvia Plath’s work; they have the feel of the reader being shot from a cannon and expected to grasp each trapeze as it swings by. Yet there is little of Plath’s negativity, self-absorption, distrust, and rage. McKinney takes Plath’s methods in a totally different direction, as, for example, in “Ten Takes”:

          Porphyry. Magnanimous. Who
          thinks up these things? Again,
          I’m seeing woodland green
          and agitated, and it warms
          the cockles of my heart. Nature.
          Beaux arts.

     The language McKinney chooses is as broad and multifaceted—and questioning—as human experience itself. The speaker in “Ten Takes” ends with this command and insight:

          Get over here. Enlighten me.
          I need your help. Why are
          you here? It is because the
          talk outside, maybe even with
          the beloved, dwindles down
          to “where’s my socks” and
          “cuddle up or I will make you
          wish you had.” Too bad.
          This is Ur speech, a series of
          glottals, clicks, and grunts
          translated into song.

     Two things that set McKinney’s work apart from Plath’s are curiosity and acceptance—leavened with a generous sense of humor and playfulness. Poems are filled with questions, as in “The Student Speaks”: “When I walk outside at night and/look up at the stars, I just say: what do you mean by all this, God,/what can you possibly mean?” or “Shame”:

          Who carries the fire? And who is the water-bearer?
          Who bears the urn? Who bakes the bread?
          Who eats it and says, Thanks Ma?
          Who leaves home? Who feels guilty
          forever? Who stays hungry?

          Who gives up, and loves it?
          Who colludes? And on and on.

     Most often, the answer is “I don’t know,” or “whatever.” McKinney reminds herself in “Ten Takes” that Wonder Woman had no special tricks, “She just/had to be,” calling to mind the Buddhist mantra of fully being present in the world that many of McKinney’s poems echo. Also there is no self pity, no expectation of perfection or of belonging, perhaps born of the class difference between Plath and McKinney, whose speaker in “The Outsider Speaks,” proclaims, “If you knew what grinding poverty-bitten/childhood is, you wouldn’t be so smug,/you wouldn’t look for themes…,” and in “Shame,” how “shame grows from dirt and no money,/grows to stealing,/how hoarding becomes the dream of plenitude,/and desire dissolves into possibility with no end/in sight, the dream of satiety endlessly receding.” Later in the poem, the speaker concludes, “What a surfeit of despair rises out of hope./The both of them a dream./Good riddance to resolve./Good riddance to resolution.”

     Acceptance sets the tone for McKinney and also gives her an edge over many of her generation’s authors who are now writing about loss, grief, and death. Sandra Gilbert’s Aftermath comes to mind because its high drama and overblown cadences—“my grief sprang from my breastbone/a young birch swaying & scabrous//my grief was a dull pot/at the back of the stove//my grief lashed the windows/a hurricane with your face…” (from “Grief: A History”)—contrast so completely with McKinney’s understated, yet precise poems about suffering from terminal cancer, the strongest and most honest, perhaps, being “Protection Cord,” which pleads:

          let me weep in common decency
          and give me the luxury to not be
          brave in the face of illness.
          Protect me from the narrative
          of triumph: how I conquered
          pain and became a famous person;
          save me from the eternal upbeat
          of that song….
                  Let me be cured from
          cure itself, the perfection dream
          derived from every story ever told.
          Let the story spin out of control.
          Protect me from control.

     Giving oneself over, warts and all, results in a peculiar blend of humbleness, audacity, and charm that marks McKinney’s work as a whole. And though it’s clear that language is the medium, it’s never the whole message. In the last section of “Shame,” the speaker cries out, “Language,/get up and dance!.../Just tell us what you know/and pose less;…/don’t let us screw you up/with dramas and lowdown agendas.…” The poem continues:

                  …Make us stop twisting your arm
          and locking you in a cell. Make us admit
          you know more than we do. These words
          passed through Shakespeare’s mind
          and farmers’ and housewives’ conversations.
                  …Stained, disheveled,
          ragged at the edges, dark with smoke,
          the tongue laps around it and caresses it,
          or spits it out, sputtering.
                  …Believe it then,
          go with it. Let it lead.

     For McKinney, language is the touchstone that leads to acceptance, which, in turn, leads to enlightenment and sometimes even peace, as in “Bravery”: “…I call down joy, I cast/a spell. I ask myself for succor, for a place/of refuge. Inside the mind there is a balm./I know it, and I say hello.”

     At a memorial reading held at the 2013 Associated Writing Programs conference in Boston, a panel of McKinney’s friends and colleagues recalled what poet Maggie Anderson, in the afterword of this book, calls McKinney’s “absolutely irrepressible sense of humor—sharp witted, sometimes irreverent, sometimes goofy.” Former student Aaron Smith recalled McKinney coming into class one day and announcing, “I’ve been trying to count up the number of lovers I’ve had. Anybody want to take a guess?” Then he read McKinney’s “At 24,” which contains this kinetic memory:

                      …One morning I drank
          eight cups of coffee and wrote four poems
          and I didn’t even care that my head was bursting
          and I was lurching around while I scrubbed the bathroom.
          Another time I left the children with my mother
          and lay in bed all day reading a biography of Van Gogh
          and groaning. What a life, what a life.
          I thought about Toulouse-Lautrec, that little freak.

     It’s the sureness, the naked truth of that last line that best captures both McKinney’s personality and her work. In a poem called “Frivolous” (as well as in several others), she dismisses predictability, pretense, opting instead for “frivolity/in the face of hardship, and because/I still can, I go on to make/self-consciously exaggerated/remarks that fool no one,/and I decide that’s fine….” Fine, too, is having no definitive answers, as underscored in “Origins and Purposes”:

          I’m just glad to have a life, any kind, goofy,
          misguided, lonely, confused. About origins
          and purposes and ultimate meanings, none of
          us even have a hint. Fine, I say. I’m happy
          as a dog, and sick as a dog, and lustful as
          a dog, and hungry as a dog. Truly I am
          dog-like, with a body, feet, stomach, and
          a heart, with what’s held out above me.
          Let me leap. Let my dog-like breath
          follow you everywhere.

     It’s the devotion, the loyalty to this one life, its other world within this one, that creates a consonantal shift in the mind of the reader—from dog-like to God-like—and allows us to share the breath that we now understand is taken by everyone who has ever lived or ever will live. Let us breathe it as deeply and doggedly as Irene McKinney did, as it allows us to release her last poems into the posthumous air.



Kate Fox's poems have appeared in New Virginia Review, West Branch, Windsor Review, and Green Mountains Review, among others. Her chapbook, The Lazarus Method, was published by Kent State University Press as part of the Wick Poetry Chapbook Series.