Arthur McMaster’s The Whole Picture Show offers a breathtakingly beautiful portrait of everyday life. As the title suggests, the collection is cinematic in nature; it moves, frame by frame, from stories about friendship to narratives of family, travel, and the arts. The speaker is at once a teacher, a son, a friend, a husband, a brother. As a reader, I was in awe of the many vivid characters in McMaster’s collection and the way in which I came to know each one of them. In the first poem, “My Neighbor, Friend, and Colleague,” the speaker paints an intimate picture of his friend Albert who is bathed in “one lone light” as he plays the piano and remembers his late wife. We also meet the speaker’s uncle, his brother, and even more distant figures like a stranger in her car singing her heart out to a song she loves. With care and attention—both to image and detail—McMaster weaves complex portraits in a way that pays homage to everyone he mentions. This is particularly true of “Roscoe Buckingham,” where we meet Mr. B (the speaker’s eighth grade English teacher) who encouraged the speaker to write down his observations of the world, which he likens to a photo in the following stanza:
Rather like a hastily taken photo not yet quite in focus,
an image needing a good dark room.
Something only you would be able to develop.
Shadows that briefly skirt across the lids of memory
Adroitly, McMaster draws a parallel between writing and observing on the one hand, and the photographic process on the other. One can’t help but think about the cinematic references in the collection’s title and the ways in which visual medium—film and photography—become analogies for the writing process. Poems, too, “skirt the lids of memory,” as the speaker uncovers relationships and scenes from his past.
Just as The Whole Picture Show is peopled with different characters, it’s also full of musical, literary, and artistic references. You can find references to Samuel Beckett, Billie Holiday, John Keats, and Arthur Rimbaud, to name a few figures. Far from name dropping, McMaster’s speaker draws on artistic and literary allusions and figures to navigate his own relationship to writing. In “Propinquity,” for example, the speaker recalls traveling to Paris, where he hoped to write some love poems. The poem situates itself within the larger theme of French love poetry as the speaker held “one blank pad / which he had hoped would transform itself / into a hauntingly brilliant book of romantic verse.” In the penultimate line, the speaker offers this aside: “you know” followed by three ellipses. This moment casts doubt on the speaker’s lofty ambitions and serves a humous undertone. Literary references here, as elsewhere, serve as aspirations for the speaker who later admits that inspiration is harder to come by than he had hoped. In “Interior Rhymes,” the speaker coveys his joys and struggles with different poetic forms, including the sonnet and haiku. While his sonnet’s lines “were tight and finely tapered,” the speaker describes his “seven-stanzaic / free verse number” as “aggressive.” He admits: “I should have never left them alone,” as if to suggest that poetic forms take on a life of their own and can easily escape the poet’s grasp. Artistic and literary lineages, as well as form, are thus playful and illusive: they flicker before the speaker and before the reader like cinema lights.
The formal range of McMaster’s collection is remarkable. He deftly uses form—including sonnets, prose poems, and a terrific visual poem—as a means of discovery: of the self, place, and history. “Sunfish,” an Ars Poetica, is one of my favorite poems in the collection because of the way it meditates on the difficulty of writing a visual poem all the while becoming one. Visually, the poem resembles a sailboat; at the same time, it describes a twelve-foot Sunfish sailboat “nearly / three-quarters of a mile from the shore.” Just as the sailboat veers into unchartered waters, so too does the poet as he attempts to write a poem to match its form and content. While many of the poems in the collection act as metacommentary on the writing process, “Sunfish” is particularly delightful in its expansiveness. As the line lengths grow, the poem also travels: “fiction. . . surges up in the middle of / the page, swelling like Lake Superior in late November.” The poem is full of musicality and self-reflection as it humbly takes on this new form.
From Florida to Paris to the Midwest, The Whole Picture Show shows us compelling scenes of bereavement, nostalgia, and joy. There is something in this collection for everyone. McMaster builds a world of everyday encounters with great skill and interrogates the smallest observations just as Mr. B. advised.
About the Reviewer
Shannon K. Winston's poems have appeared in RHINO, Crab Creek Review, The Citron Review, the Los Angeles Review, Zone 3, and elsewhere. Her work has been nominated for three Pushcart Prizes and several times for the Best of the Net. Her poetry collection, The Girl Who Talked to Paintings, was recently published by Glass Lyre Press. She currently lives in Princeton, New Jersey. Find her here: https://shannonkwinston.com/.