Deciphering riddles of existence through Mark McKee’s fourth book of poetry
Review by Aarik Danielson
Marc McKee’s voice, as it rings through Consolationeer, is equal parts abstract artist, hi-fidelity folk singer, and postmodern priest.
The fourth and latest poetry collection from the University of Missouri professor sums our modern spiritual plagues: the desire to manage everything that happens to us, our gnawing impatience, our fissured relationships, the slipperiness of hope. Yet McKee never subsists on the fruit of this age, instead offering a taste of that which might survive our current ecstasies and indignities.
Certain words and turns of phrase become sound and shape in his hands. Subtle variations and stubborn reappearances change the terms themselves, causing you to question the conditions in which they recur.
You put one foot in front of one foot / in front of one foot in front of one foot, McKee writes in “This Was During My Animal Rescue Phase.”
In the middle of the dance you forget the dance / you’re dancing, in the middle of the stitch / the stitch breaks, the wind rakes / over the wound, we’re told in “Every Day You Rebuild Your Wheelhouse.”
This lyricism limbers up the reader, then shoos us out the door to accompany McKee on his spiritual detective work.
He identifies eternal conditions that create conflict and anticipates their consequences. Some had their days of reckoning before Consolationeer hit the atmosphere; others are only now coming into focus. He seems to see the #MeToo movement coming in the opening stanzas of “How We Respond Is What It Means”:
At this time it is impossible not to love / at least one monster. Venom laces the air, / you are in a house with / the feeling of every light in every room / turned on and so to turn them off / is to discover again and again / what makes a house.
These days of resistance and vigilant negotiation between fact and fiction underline McKee’s words in “At the Edge of a Deep, Dark Wood, Re-purposed Dolphin Speaks”: Now we are certain / we have made too much mention of light, / now we know we will never be able / to have mentioned it enough.
When McKee bears witness to that which has always been and might always be, he brings the spiritual relief the book’s title suggests. Knowing what we’re up against feels strangely soothing — and freeing. McKee does more than just commiserate — he puts one foot, one word, in front of the other, and nudges us to do the same.
You are going to make it / through this year / if it kills me, he writes in “Anodyne.”
No doubt most poets would say a single line is only as good as those which surround it, that context is king within a whole poem, within a whole volume. And yet McKee delivers standout lines that deserve to be closely studied. Some sound like philosophical puzzles:
Nothing happens. / Which is to say an awful lot very nearly / happens (from “Lately Indesolate”).
Energy stays put and colossally / doesn’t (from “Recharger”).
There is a ferocity moving toward us / for which we do not have the proper gloves (from “Electric Company”).
Others read like proverbs, secular scriptures which call out collective sins of commission and unbelief:
O we are ravenous / to get ahead of ourselves (from “& I Don’t Sleep, I Don’t Sleep, I Don’t Sleep Till It’s Light”).
The renegade spur of hope / is a peculiar spark / we contort like novice dancers to avoid (from “Bad Move, Simon”).
Consolationeer isn’t obtuse, but it’s not easy reading either. Some passages first feel impenetrable, like a crisp morning walk through a fog of unknowing. They are pierced by brief sunburst moments; on repeated readings, we begin to make out landmarks which make each successive trip through the gray feel more assured, like we’re getting somewhere.
The word “unsettle” has a bad reputation; through time and trial, it has landed on a list of terms we’d rather avoid. But in a more productive, ultimately optimistic way, Consolationeer keeps us from settling — for conventional wisdom, for the sound of our own voices, for doing what we’ve always done and getting what we’ve always got. As he writes in “I Am the Cleverest & Only Passenger in This Motorcycle Sidecar”:
You think / you are moving forward / and the current keeps carrying you / farther away. Everything behind us / is in front of someone else.
McKee’s poems unsettle us for the sake of encouraging a greater capacity to notice our lot and imagine something more. With this gradual clarity comes a quiet power. Consolationeerresonates with that muted strength.