I admit it – I don’t get it. There’s a wonderful tone to David McFadden’s What’s the Score?, and it’s philosophically evocative, and some of its individual lines are striking. But I’m not sure that I know what any of it’s really about.
The one certain thing is that much of it is travel poetry. The book opens with “Stimulation Galore,” a lengthy piece which takes us around Italy’s Lake Como and through a discussion of existence, speedboats, Chaucer, and Catholic saints; the saints, and good ol’ Jesus himself, are treated with an irreverence so happily mild that it almost feels like admiration. A few things are clear immediately: McFadden is a warm voice, he has a wide-ranging knowledge of literature and history, and he combines these two elements to create poetry of surprising juxtapositions – speedboats and Chaucer, for example.
Warmth, though, shouldn’t be confused with apathy. McFadden is concerned with apprehending the good and bad of the world, and our culture earns a black eye or two in the process. Poems like “Workout at the Why” keenly highlight the nastiness of culture with cheerfully comic brutality:
Why take an interest in saying no to a free lifetime supply of anything?
Why swim in dirty water if you could be ridiculed for thinking twice?
Why think deep thoughts if you could be treated in Tofino for shock?
Why get raped and beaten by gangs of unemployed fishermen if you can’t outscale the opposition?
Perhaps the strongest poems in the book focus on perhaps one of the most serious contemporary issues: face-to-face human connection. “Wet-Mopping the Stairs,” the simple story of a fifth-floor office worker trying day after day to get a smile out of the janitor, is all the feel-good-ness of a two-hour movie wrapped up in a few short stanzas. Many of the collection’s poems are built from conversations with strangers, or intimate memories of certain moments with friends. The book seems grateful for togetherness, with lovers and friends, with the quiet and the talkative, and its gratitude is touching.
I mentioned, though, that I don’t get it. For me, many of the poems exist only as a vague sense of emotion; the words yield feeling, perhaps, but sometimes so little sense of meaning that they don’t even provoke thought. The incredibly wide-ranging allusions, from Spinoza to Lauren Bacall to Eurydice to Proust, may be partly to blame. But sometimes the poetry is frustrating, as just as one begins to grasp a narrative strand or a sense of meaning, the next stanza switches topics, time, space completely. Possibly this is intentional defamiliarization of thought patterns, asking us to expand our comfort with juxtaposition and decrease our reliance on familiar connotation. Possibly, it is an unintentional lack of clarity. I don’t know. But for me, the connections sometimes just aren’t there.
Still, the poet’s wry humour and total commitment to undercutting seriousness – he writes of a friend, “Greg’s death was a huge event in his life” – keep the collection fast and funny, and this lends an unexpected power to the poignancy and melancholy of some of the more serious poems. Occasionally, the book sneaks right up on you; you might not understand all of it, but you’ll probably understand some of it very strongly.