I recently had the benefit of attending a live performance by another poet on Mark’s label—one Jack McCarthy. I’d seen Jack perform once before, when Mark gamed him into performing a set at my old high school back in 2000 or 2001. In fact, Mark got a lot of his published poets to perform at local functions1.
At this particular reading—which ended up being a small and cozy affair—I managed to feel like an ass by starting to request a certain funny poem that I remembered from 200X (specifically, “Car Talk II”), having him guess that I was asking for one of his flagship poems—a bait-and-switch that lures you into chuckles and then emotionally devastates you with the last stanza—and then essentially saying, when everyone was breathless and silent from the last lingering line, “No, do the funny one—you know, the car thief one.”
I say this not to highlight my social gaffe, or underline my ability to seem like a knuckle-dragging philistine, but rather to illustrate that Jack McCarthy wields a variety of poetic weapons. In fact, I remembered the sad, devastating poem as well, but had decided gainst requesting it in fear that the venue—a bar, albeit a nice one—wasn’t appropriate.
McCarthy is such a damned intriguing mix: his delivery has shades of George Carlin—the barest hint of an accent, a certain matter-of-factness, and a wry, depracating wit—interplayed with an incredible tenderness. One gets that he is full of love—for his wife, his daughters, his father, his mothers, his experiences—and also a world-weary cynicism so often held by a person of Jack’s age.
I woke up 4 AM
from a dream of coining a Latin verb
the way men who have gambled their lives
for a chance to serve God
actually make words up
in the bowels of the Vatican
in order that pronouncements might be made
in a dead language
about occasions of sin
implicit in emerging technologies
Jack doesn’t have the rhetorical flair that some of his labelmates do, but he has a certain power that is immense and frightening and wonderful. Nor should I entirely discount the mechanics of his verse: in a live setting, it is easy to lose track of the rhythm—the bits of assonance and consonance sprinkled liberally throughout and the carefully-constructed lines and stanzas—because Jack’s readings are less like the recitation of a poem and more like being regaled with stories and life lessons by a favorite grandfather. “May I compare thee to a summer’s day?” is all good and fine, but “It’s as if we both broke down outside the same gas station at the same time” is uproariously funny and heartachingly poignant without boxing itself in a realm of romantic fantasy.
Say Goodnight, Grace Notes is short, bookwise—just over 100 pages—but it is an absolutely marvellous compilation of poems. It manages to be personal without being obscure; touching without being maudlin; funny without being merely novel; approachable without being simplistic. McCarthy brings a particular well-honed knowledge of his craft to these pages. Each work is a treasure, each page a joy. I only wish all of you could see him perform, hear his inflections and watch the memories play out in his eyes. This book may be the closest you’ll come. If you’re a fan of poetry—or even if you want a good introduction—get this book.