Hazmat

Overview

HAZMAT, meaning “hazardous material,” is an abbreviation familiar from signs at the entrances to long dark tunnels or on the sides of suspicious containers. Here, in a series of stunning poems, J. D. McClatchy examines the first hazmat we all encounter: our own bodies. The virtuosic “Tattoos” meditates on why we decorate the body’s surface, while other poems plunge daringly inward, capturing the way in which everything that makes us human–desire and decay, need and curiosity, the jarring sense of loss and ...
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Overview

HAZMAT, meaning “hazardous material,” is an abbreviation familiar from signs at the entrances to long dark tunnels or on the sides of suspicious containers. Here, in a series of stunning poems, J. D. McClatchy examines the first hazmat we all encounter: our own bodies. The virtuosic “Tattoos” meditates on why we decorate the body’s surface, while other poems plunge daringly inward, capturing the way in which everything that makes us human–desire and decay, need and curiosity, the jarring sense of loss and mortality–hovers in the flesh. In the midst of it all is the heart, its treacheries, its gnawing grievances, its boundless capacities.

With their stark titles (“Cancer,” “Feces,” “Jihad”), McClatchy’s poems work dazzling variations on this book’s theme: how we live with the fact that we will die. Crowned by the twenty-part sequence “Motets,” which deals out an exquisite hand of emotional crises, this collection brings us a sumptuous weave of impassioned thought and clear-sighted feeling. Holding up a powerful poetic mirror, McClatchy shows us our very selves in a chilling series of images: the melodrama of the body being played out, as it must be, in the theater of the spirit.

From the Hardcover edition.

2002 Lambda Literary Award Finalist, Gay Men's Poetry

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This fifth collection's title mostly refers to the body itself as hazardous material; the book includes poems about tattoos, the ever-hazardous penis ("Men are known to appreciate/ What it stands for"), and death by cancer and AIDS-related illnesses. For New Yorkers like McClatchy (Ten Commandments; Twenty Questions), "hazmat" will immediately recall September 11; a three-sonnet set called "Jihad" reacts not so much to one terrorist incident but to the Middle East troubles generally, and to the word "jihad," thereby adding language to the list of what may be toxic: "The holy war/ Is waged against the self at first, to raze/ The ziggurat of sin we climb upon/ To view ourselves, and next against that glaze/ The enemies of faith will use to disguise/ Their words. Only then, and at the caliph's nod,/ Are believers called to drown in blood the people/ Of an earlier book. There is no god but God." A series of 20 short poems ("Motets") brings McClatchy's classicism into a more compressed, more narrative mode, taking up bodies, illness or sex: "shapes on the sheet,/ yours doubled over, mine clenched and released." The longest and last poem, "Ouija," is McClatchy's elegy for James Merrill, using the s ance form central to Merrill's own epic to memorialize Merrill's project, to consider the mystery of his oeuvre and to "imagine a wave goodbye." If the book's varying materials aren't quite volatile enough to merit the title, they are still very affecting. (Oct.) Forecast: McClatchy, who is Merrill's literary executor, is the longtime editor of the Yale Review, and a prolific anthologist (a book of translations of Horace's Odes by 35 contemporary poets is due from Princeton in October), but he has not overpublished his verse. Fans will buy the book sight unseen, others will hear about it via reviews taking the Merrill angle. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
In his fifth book of poetry (after The Ten Commandments), McClatchy continues to explore the connection between the spiritual and the corporeal, seeking "a desire as yet half-satisfied." Though he reveres the past and pays tribute to his mentor, James Merrill, the largesse of these poems is the command over craft and language. McClatchy realizes that form and content do matter; what is being said is inherent in how it is being said. For example, in the poem "Glanum," which employs the couplet, the tempo increases with the use of enjambments as if the reader were racing through the ruins. Throughout, McClatchy demonstrates a fine linguistic control. The restricted use of end-stopped lines subdues the tendency of the rhymes to call attention to the pattern, and the slant rhymes (scribes/ pride; legion/become) prevent the poem from becoming monotonous and predictable. Thematically, Hazmat possesses a sense of grief, which "sinks its sorrow deep within and through its own life." In the end, these poems come to represent our own lives, our own longings, our own "flag of surrender" to the spiritual. A brilliant testament to McClatchy's place among American poets; highly recommended.-Tim Gavin, Episcopal Acad., Merion, PA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375709913
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/6/2004
  • Pages: 96
  • Sales rank: 1,415,796
  • Product dimensions: 5.85 (w) x 8.35 (h) x 0.27 (d)

Meet the Author

J. D. McClatchy is the author of four earlier books of poems, Scenes from Another Life (1981), Stars Principal (1986), The Rest of the Way (1990), and Ten Commandments (1998). His literary essays are collected in White Paper (1989) and Twenty Questions (1998). He is the editor of The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry (1990) and The Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry (1996), as well as a co-editor of James Merrill’s Collected Poems (2001) and Collected Novels and Plays (2002). The author of several opera libretti, McClatchy is a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He teaches at Yale University and is editor of The Yale Review.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Read an Excerpt

Pibroch

But now that I am used to pain,
Its knuckles in my mouth the same
Today as yesterday, the cause
As clear-obscure as who’s to blame,

A fascination with the flaws
Sets in-the plundered heart, the pause
Between those earnest, oversold
Liberties that took like laws.

What should have been I never told,
Afraid of outbursts you’d withhold.
Why are desires something to share?
I’m shivering, though it isn’t cold.

Beneath your window, I stand and stare.
The planets turn. The trees are bare.
I’ll toss a pebble at the pane,
But softly, knowing you are not there.

Glanum

at the ruins of a provincial Roman town

So this is the city of love.
I lean on a rail above
Its ruined streets and square
Still wondering how to care
For a studiously unbuilt site
Now walled and roofed with light.
A glider's wing overhead
Eclipses the Nike treads
On a path once freshly swept
Where trader and merchant kept
A guarded company.
As far as the eye can see
The pampered gods had blessed
The temples, the gates, the harvest,
The baths and sacred spring,
Sistrum, beacon, bowstring.
Each man remembered his visit
To the capital's exquisite
Libraries or whores.
The women gossiped more
About the one-legged crow
Found in a portico
Of the forum, an omen
That sluggish priests again
Insisted required prayer.
A son's corpse elsewhere
Was wrapped in a linen shroud.
A distant thundercloud
Mimicked a slumping pine
That tendrils of grape entwined.
Someone kicked a dog.
The orator's catalogue
Prompted worried nods
Over issues soon forgot.
A cock turned on a spit.
A slave felt homesick.
The underclass of scribes
Was saved from envy by pride.
The always invisible legion
Fought what it would become.

. . .

We call it ordinary
Life—banal, wary,
Able to withdraw
From chaos or the law,
Intent on the body's tides
And the mysteries disguised
At the bedside or the hearth,
Where all things come apart.
There must have been a point--
While stone to stone was joined,
All expectation and sweat,
The cautious haste of the outset--
When the city being built,
In its chalky thrust and tilt,
Resembled just for a day
What's now a labeled display,
These relics of the past,
A history recast
As remarkable rubble,
Broken column, muddled
Inscription back when
Only half up, half done.
Now only the ruins are left,
A wall some bricks suggest,
A doorway into nothing,
Last year's scaffolding.
By design the eye is drawn
To something undergone.
A single carving remains
The plunder never claimed,
And no memories of guilt
Can wear upon or thrill
This scarred relief of a man
And woman whom love will strand,
Their faces worn away,
Their heartache underplayed,
Just turning as if to find
Something to put behind
Them, an emptiness
Of uncarved rock, an excess
Of sharp corrosive doubt.

. . .

Now everything's left out
To rain and wind and star,
Nature's repertoire
Of indifference or gloom.
This French blue afternoon,
For instance, how easily
The light falls on debris,
How calmly the valley awaits
Whatever tonight frustrates,
How quickly the small creatures
Scurry from the sunlight's slur,
How closely it all comes to seem
Like details on the table between
Us at dinner yesterday,
Our slab of sandstone laid
With emblems for a meal.
Knife and fork. A deal.
Thistle-prick. Hollow bone.
The olive's flesh and stone.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Table of Contents

Fado 3
Glanum 5
Largesse 9
Tankas 11
Jihad 15
Orchid 17
Cancer 19
Elbows 21
Penis 23
Feces 27
Tattoos 32
Pibroch 47
Aden 48
Motets 50
Ouija 75
Acknowledgments 83
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