Winner of the 2008 Orphic Poetry Book Prize, Kyle McCord’s Galley of the Beloved in Torment presents the reader with a series of desolate landscapes, where “cold wind” drifts through “broken bottles,” “barbed fences,” and the ruins of strange cities. As the book unfolds, these bleak pastorals serve as the backdrop for a fascinating exploration of literary tradition and its role in shaping the austere, postmodern world that we inhabit. Just as McCord’s visually arresting dreamscapes conflate the mundane with the mythical, his work gracefully situates everyday life within the context of romantic, decadent, and neoclassical ideas, suggesting that even the most commonplace experiences are burdened with history.
While consistently accomplished, McCord’s work is at its best when his stylistic choices enact this tension between tradition and modern life. Often pairing high diction and a melancholy tone with a more colloquial register, the poems in this collection pay homage to literary predecessors while appropriating from and parodying them. In many ways, McCord’s technical decisions suggest not only the beauty inherent in such revisions, but also their inevitability. Consider the title poem in the collection, which reads,
The First Beloved preens above the neon grave of the heart,
Scientists soon will unlock the mind. First Beloved, your gifts
of rain, of truck overturned turned over, returned. Of tongue
unfolded like laundry, humps of sand above breakers.
The sky’s cracked heart is lightened and pressed
open to the multitudes . . .
In depicting “The First Beloved,” McCord’s use of anaphora, caesura, and repetition creates a stately tone, reminiscent of passages in the work of Shelley and Keats. Pairing these nineteenth-century influences with “neon graves,” “tongue/unfolded like laundry,” and “the sky’s cracked heart,” this finely crafted poem suggests that a complex literary heritage is woven into contemporary efforts to express oneself. Like other works in the collection, “Galley of the Beloved in Torment” depicts the endless possibility inherent in such a proposition, as every phrase becomes a doorway to myth, history, and aesthetic contemplation.
Along these lines, McCord frequently allows pieces of found language to inhabit his texts, suggesting a great deal of reciprocity between artistic tradition and everyday life. Just as works of art are often grounded in the most unremarkable experiences, Galley of the Beloved in Torment presents modern existence as being steeped in literary history, an observation that proves both insightful and thought provoking as the book unfolds. In a piece entitled “Venus Clothed by Distance,” McCord writes,
This is why American models are asked to refuse tattoo,
why fashion is so often associated with the search
for dark matter
which would evidence an ever-expanding universe,
though no evidence seems to suggest such.
Because the young hold such sway
in American fashion,
the fetish of the perpetual I surfaces.
Throughout this passage, McCord seamlessly weaves fragments of popular American discourse—ranging from the “dark matter” of modern science to media conventions—with a longstanding lyric tradition. Just as the customary “I” and “you” emerge from these disparate pieces of found language, the poem suggests that contemporary culture appropriates artistic ideas in much the same way. By pairing the first person speaker of lyric poetry with the “perpetual I” inherent in American life, McCord skillfully depicts the echoes of literary tradition visible in the most commonplace cultural assumptions. Like much of the work in Galley of the Beloved in Torment, “Venus Clothed by Distance” conveys these astute observations on postmodern life through a graceful matching of style and content.
Along these lines, McCord’s choice of form embodies the complex relationship between history and modernity that he implies. Adeptly pairing hybrid prose with lyric pieces, the poet suggests that even the most avant-garde work retains a complex artistic heritage. Throughout Galley of the Beloved in Torment, these literary histories become a source of not only homage, but innovation and experimentation as well. For McCord, an understanding of past traditions, conventions, and aesthetic principles allows both the artist and his or her community to move forward, discovering new possibilities for self-expression. He writes, for example, in a prose poem entitled “The Princess, the Boar, the Moon,”
A man was to lie with his wife and take in the spectacular affair each year on television. Usually, the princess would never see the boar again. She would sign her edicts, shop for plums or dog food in the village below. One Sunday, she spied a boar eyeing her outside the grocery. It cowered behind the wheel of a Saturn, its shriveled face reflecting not rage, not sadness or pity.
McCord presents the tropes of fables and fairy tales alongside vestiges of modern life, which include “television,” “the grocery,” and “the wheel of a Saturn.” In doing so, he suggests that the underlying assumptions of such age-old narratives will continue to manifest themselves in contemporary society until we become conscious of their literary-historical origins. Likewise, the poet simultaneously inhabits and revises aspects of the lyric tradition as he works in prose forms, subtly suggesting the possibility of an illuminating dialogue with the past. McCord’s new book is filled with poems like this one, in which precise technical decisions mirror, and often complicate, the content of a given piece.
About the Reviewer
Kristina Marie Darling is the author of Night Songs (Gold Wake Press, 2010) and the editor of narrative (dis)continuities: prose experiments by younger american writers (VOX Press, 2011). A graduate of Washington University, she currently studies philosophy at the University of Missouri, St. Louis.