Rose McLarney’s debut collection feels born of the same world as Irene McKinney’s first book, The Girl with the Stone in Her Lap. Both collections mine the grain and coarse chaff of the American pastoral, where “golden apples / glow in sheer skin,” and yet “Their weight breaks branches . . . and you fall in fruit.” McKinney moved from direct representations of her dark pastoral in later collections, yet those poems still contained the solemn whispers of place. McLarney’s debut arrives with equal weight as McKinney's, though McLarney appears willing to remain longer in this “harmed” world of “buildings abandoned by paint, the now unfarmed fields.”
McLarney imbues a particularly elegiac tone to her corner of the pastoral: this is a world on the brink of change, and not all of it is good. Nature’s shifts introduce “Autumn Again”:
The hills, stabbed with sumac,
maple. I know
the color is beautiful but
this time of year, there is always
a wounded feeling.
Shifts of season are not the only variations here. “Living Up” unfolds within a low-ceilinged home “crowded / by history and rotting rafters.” The decaying home has been bought by a “tall, young man;” the modifiers directly contrasting the property. The man “makes plans” in this home, and “wonders, for a moment, what it would have been / like to be born here.” The Always Broken Plates of Mountains distinguishes between the old pastoral and these naïve arrivals and their shortsighted plans. The new owner does not know “how it has always been here: Love always shot / with the feeling this is the last of it.”
“Appetite” likewise documents the “new owner of the old / tobacco farm down the road” who “raises buffalo — / for lean meat.” That dash is heavy. The owner is lazy:
It’s easier to leave the barn doors open
than to move the hay out every morning.
So he lets them eat as much as they will.
The bulls engorge themselves, covering each other “in gold and bellow.” Days later, the owner discovers them “suffocated under the bales.” The poem ends without comment, unlike “Flock,” which reveals similar incompetence. Those “big plans” include “a thousand chickens.” The scene goes horribly wrong, as the flock follows one chicken to avoid a draft, and the man is caught in the resulting chaos. The narrator, outside the event and a bit judgmental, concludes that
the sight might seem beautiful:
white feathers falling from the air
and covering a man.
Such atmosphere of eschatology is not hyperbolic: the end, it seems, is near. Solemnity in poetry requires caution: nothing is worse than verse dripping with self-significance. McLarney, thankfully, is exactly the poet to handle such material. “Domestic” examples an even approach, with a woman going to “smash the ice / on the trough” so water runs to sows “in heat, squealing and pink.” She feels “wild.” When the narrator does speak to the reader, qualifying that “the only strength in this story / is the fences’,” the address feels necessary. Afterward, the woman resigns that she will be
making my living elsewhere and
returning to farms after sunset,
the barns symbols
just discernable in the dark.
Barns become metonyms for a pastoral world that the narrator can only enter in moments of wildness; otherwise, that world is blurred. Metonym serves McLarney well elsewhere, as in “A Reproach,” where a “blade fills the span of his arms,” and “All day, as skinned carcasses / pass down the line, he makes this one movement.” Man becomes tool, becomes violence. Such truncated, taut images bind the book. McLarney shares McKinney’s talent with spare poems: beige pages counter, but do not smother, the black text. “At the Mountain State Fair” and “In Admiration” gain gravity through paucity, the latter ending with goats, pressed-together, “heads bowed- / heads with horns / and still, they bow.” The fact that select other poems, such as “Drought and Divorce,” are less concrete due to that same leanness does little to lessen the comparative successes.
McLarney returns to her theme of the new and traditional in “Where I Will Live,” an optimistic first-person narrative that refigures her earlier contrasts. This narrator “bought the farm” but is “moving in / to the house, beyond the barn, / on stonier ground.” She is joined by an old man, and they look at the barn as “the sun sets”: “Boards alternate with absences, / railings against the light cast at us.” The man’s statement feels directed at the reader: “So people could try to grow / on the good land . . . they built / in the hardest places.” Although another poem, “They Said It Was Too Late,” elegizes “the time / when you could make a living / with your hands,” The Always Broken Plates of Mountains offers that the best salve for a changing present are “old stories,” both spoken and written.
McLarney’s poems are such gifts. “Builder and Keeper” weaves together her other major concern: relationships. Delivered in sections, the narrative follows a “rough framer” and his lover, who “feeds him / fittingly” and “matches / his work, its words, in her way.” Man and woman exist in concurrence: “He will cross his arms to stop the machines. / She will curl her fingers, Come to me.” McLarney writes love well:
She holds her finger and thumb up
to the moon to tell its phase.
It’s waning when the crescent
sits in her left hand, waxing
when it fits her right.
To romanticize the pastoral, or any setting, is poetic sin, but to eschew sentiment altogether neuters the poetic act. McLarney succeeds through imagery. The poem’s penultimate stanza is a litany of the concrete: “Nut around bolt. Rail run through stile . . . Hammer held / by belt loop . . . Teacups in each other’s laps.” The worlds of these details juxtapose, leading the narrator to reach “Hips between thighs. / Curve of his chest against her back, knees notched / together.”
Although McLarney’s debut does not end with “Builder and Keeper,” the final lines of the poem thread love and lust, place and permanence. The man, first at his job site, “just sits / in the quiet before saw, sander, and drill.” The reader can enjoy the silence beyond the final pages of The Always Broken Plates of Mountains:
He pulls her long hair from his beard and lets it drift.
This is not idleness. Birds collect the strands,
work them into their nests; a house is being built.
Nick Ripatrazone's books include This Darksome Burn (novella), The Fine Delight: Postconciliar Catholic Literature (criticism), and two books of poetry: Oblations and This Is Not About Birds.
The Always Broken Plates of Mountains
by Rose McLarney
Four Way Books, April 2012
$15.95, paperback; ISBN: 9781935536192