Mercury Dressing

Mercury Dressing

by J. D. McClatchy

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This beautiful collection from J. D. McClatchy holds up a mirror to the soul, considering heroic and human figures in poems that “balance mandarin wit with enormous learning, a fully twenty-first-century sensibility and a deft use of the demotic” (Bookpage).


This beautiful collection from J. D. McClatchy holds up a mirror to the soul, considering heroic and human figures in poems that “balance mandarin wit with enormous learning, a fully twenty-first-century sensibility and a deft use of the demotic” (Bookpage).

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Powerful . . . Given McClatchy’s formal virtuosity, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn he jots his grocery lists down in terza rima, too.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Although these poems lament the smarts and humiliations attendant on love and loss, they provoke the kind of wonder and joy we experience when the curtain comes down on a dazzling performance.” —The New Leader
Publishers Weekly

Celebrated since the 1980s for his urbane command of traditional forms, McClatchy (Ten Commandments ) has steadily expanded his tonal and topical range: this sixth collection is his most various, its many modes held together by worldly apprehension at his own middle age, and at the unsatisfactory lives of lovers and friends. The ambitious sequence "The Young Fate" strings together allegorical vignettes, each having to do with resignation and loss: "What envy does the sun have? What choice the moon?" An even more ambitious sequence, "Trees Walking," takes its unrhymed meter from the Latin, its array of stories from the Gospel of Mark and the gossip of gay men at the opera, and its sensibility from the poet's awareness that his body will eventually fail. A sequence of narrative sonnets tells a fanciful story spun off from Madame Butterfly , set during the Japanese internment. Other sonnets speak for all of the "Seven Deadly Sins"; "Envy" gets a simple song with the chorus "Why him and not me?" McClatchy sounds more than ever like himself. The plainly styled "Er" (perhaps McClatchy's best poem) glides masterfully from the poet's love life to the Epic of Gilgamesh , and thence to celestial symbols of fate, "spangled ranks/ Of wheeling planetary orbits moving as they must,/ Each sounding a note in harmony with the rest." (Feb.)

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Library Journal

Among the most difficult skills for a poet to cultivate is the ability to lend presence to events and figures of the distant past. When a poet takes on themes as well worn as Roman gods or Puccini's Madama Butterfly and reanimates them for a contemporary audience whose attentions have never been so furiously contested, he may have staked a claim that his talents can't justify. Here, however, McClatchy (Hazmat) shows that his penchant for seamlessly combining the classical with the contemporary is virtually unmatched. McClatchy is operating in familiar territory, one whose sensual qualities map well to his own proclivities. This new volume deals with the geography of the body as it travels through time, from the archaic environs of Ovid to the imagined narratives of postwar picture brides. Penning a mixture of the mythical and the earthly, McClatchy makes us forget which is which: we know only the rich sensual textures and pithy plays of phrase as we move clockwise through this new volume, which will be a solid addition to most public and academic library collections.
—Chris Pusateri

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.80(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.30(d)

Read an Excerpt

MERCURY DRESSINGTo steal a glance and, anxious, seeHim slipping into transparency—The feathered helmet already in place,Its shadow fallen across his face(His hooded sex its counterpart)—Unsteadies the routines of the heart.If I reach out and touch his wing,What harm, what help might he then bring? But suddenly he disappears,As so much else has down the years...Until I feel him deep insideThe emptiness, preoccupied.His nerve electrifies the air.His message is his being there.THE FRAMEFussily ornate and merely decorative,Wreaths of fruited branchlets and fluttering ribbonsEchoing the scrolled plasterworkOn moldings around the mirroredParlors where a patronCould straighten his collar,Reliefs embellished with glass beadsTo mimic his beloved’s brooch,Rosettes cast in pairs and affixed with foil and wax,Then coated with gesso and gilded to seem carved,Or cross-hatched textures scratched onto the surfacesOf curling leaves and hammered for the fine mattingOf metal with tiny pocked points,The crinkled foil of gold pressed downOnto the moistened boleFor a burnished veneerThat aligns the soft candlelightOn the apostle’s face with whatShines more severely from the Savior’s fingertip,Is not the sort of frame I prefer to encloseWhat I should figure on as an allegoryOf someone’s sense of what he puts between himselfAnd the world. I prefer the frameWhose entablature seems to shieldWhat it displays, withholdWhat has been given itTo help explain the mysteriesOf the child sent to redeem us.From architrave to plinth, balusters upholdingWhat the crested lunette oversees, the rigidVocabulary of antiquity admitsNo distractions, nothing to lead the eye awayFrom the perfected cityscapeAnd room, where a sad pale womanUnder a stone cherubThe color of the cloudsHolds something that she knows will die.A friend sits beside her, peelingAn apple. In the distance, three men on horsebackLook up at her window, the darkness in a frame.A V I E W O F T H E S E AThe argument had smoldered for a week, Long enough for the fine points of fire,Banked from the start against self- righteousness,To have blurred in the pale ash of recrimination.I couldn’t tell which wound would be the deeper—To stay on, behind the slammed door,Forcing you to listen to me talk about itWith others, or to leave you altogether.What caused the argument—another crumpledPiece of paper with a phone number on it—Felt at last as lost as all the brightBeginnings, years back. And then . . .And thenYou were standing at the sink with your back to meAnd must have sensed me there behind you, watching.Suddenly you turned around and I saw in your eyesWhat all along had been the reason I loved youAnd had come to this moment when I would be forcedTo choose but could not because of what I had seen,As when the master of the tea ceremony,Determined to embody his ideal,Had constructed a room of such simplicityThat only a decade of deliberating its anglesAnd details was in the end required of him,A wooden floor so delicately joinedThat birds still seemed to sing in its branches,Three salmon- dyed silken cushionsOn which the painted quince petals trembled,A pilled iron kettle disguised as a sea urchin,Each cup the echo of cloud on wave,And on the long low wall, a swirling muralOf warlords and misty philosophers,The Ten Most Famous Men in the World,Floating at its center the gold- leafed emperor . . .Who, rumors having reached the court,Was invited to come approve the great design,But when he saw himself as merely oneOf ten, declared that because the master’sInsult was exceeded only by his skillHe would be allowed to take his own lifeAnd have a month to plan the suicide.The master bowed, the emperor withdrew.At the month’s end, two aged monksReceived the same letter from their old friend,The master, who had now built his final teahouse—An improvisation, a thing of boards and clothOn the mountain in the province of their childhood—Inviting them for one last cup together.The monks too wanted nothing more,The sadness of losing their friend to his ancestorsEased by the ordinariness of his request.But they were feeble and could not make the climb.Again the master wrote, begging themTo visit—he was determined to die the very dayThey came and in their company, and besides,He reminded them, from the mountain they would haveA view of the sea, its round immensityThe soul’s own, they could never elsewhere command.The two monks paused. Their duty to a friendWas one thing, but to have at last a view of the sea,A wish since each had been a boy bentOver pictures of its moonswept midnight blue. . . .So they agreed and undertook the difficult journey,Sheer rock, sharp sun, shallow breaths untilThey reached the top. The master was waiting for them,The idea of leaving life already in his looks,A resignation half solemn, half smiling.He led them past a sapling plum he notedWould lean in the wind a hundred years hence.A small ridge still blocked the sea, but the masterReassured them it would be theirs, a memoryTo return with like no other, and soon, soon.They came to his simple house, a single room,But surrounded by stunted pines and thick hedgesThey could not see beyond. Patience was urged.Inside, they were welcomed with the usual silences,With traditional bows and ritual embraces.At the far end of the room, the two cups of waterOn the floor, the master explained, were for themTo purify their mouths with before the tea was served.They were next told to lie on their bellies and inchTowards the cups, ensuring a proper humiliation.The monks protested—they had come to see their friendThrough to the end, to see his soul released,Poured like water into water—and where, after all,Was the unmatched view he had promised them? They would, he countered, all have what they wishedIf they yielded as they must to this ceremony.The master waited. The monks slowly, painfullyGot to their knees, then to the straw mat,Their arms outspread as they had been instructed,And like limbless beggars made their way acrossThe floor, their eyes closed in shame, untilThey reached the cups. With their lips they tippedThe rims back so the water ran over their tongues.Now, the master whispered, now look up.They opened their eyes. They raised their heads a little.And when they did, they saw a small oblongCut into the wall, and beyond that anotherCut through the hedge, and beyond that was whatThey had waited for all their lives, a sightSo sublimely composed—three distant islandsDarkly shimmering on boundlessness—That in the end they saw themselves there,In their discomfort, in a small opening,In a long- planned accidental moment,In their rapture and their loss, in a view of the sea.

Meet the Author

J. D. McClatchy is the author of six books of poems, three collections of prose, and thirteen opera libretti. A teacher at Yale University and the editor of The Yale Review, McClatchy is also the president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

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