Ten Commandments

Ten Commandments

by J. D. McClatchy

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Ten Commandments is a book-length sequence of poems that plot the rules we were raised on, rules we forget but can't evade. Here is the whole underworld of desire, its tasks and perversions. Here are the iron laws and the way the heart is shaped by them, even as it prefers betrayal, adultery, murder, or greed. J. D. McClatchy draws on intimate


Ten Commandments is a book-length sequence of poems that plot the rules we were raised on, rules we forget but can't evade. Here is the whole underworld of desire, its tasks and perversions. Here are the iron laws and the way the heart is shaped by them, even as it prefers betrayal, adultery, murder, or greed. J. D. McClatchy draws on intimate authobiographical details, and on a range of historical incidents that includes an eerie account of Proust in a brothel and a chilling glimpse of Eichmann in Argentina. Sideshow freaks, snipers in Vietnam, Auden's dictionary, whirling dervishes, motel and mammogram, slave and saint—this book is a cabinet of moral curiosities, a collage of emotional astonishments.

When McClatchy's previous book, The Rest of the Way, was published in 1990, he was given an Award in Literature by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, whose citation concluded, "it may be that no more eloquent poet will emerge in his American generation."

With Ten Commandments, there can be no question of his mastery. Here is that rare eloquence indeed, charged with passion and raised to a remarkable new power.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Technically and emotionally sophisticated, McClatchy's previous three collections (The Rest of the Way, etc.) drew readers in with their conversational brio, and rewarded them with a wisdom that was sad and compromising, sinned against and sinning. The same is true of his brilliant new collectionnot least the sinning. For this series of 30 poems (grouped in oblique, three-poem responses to the Decalogue) is largely a catalogue of sins, like the pride of the possessive lover in "Betrayal" who comes to believe in his own "sensible advice and reasonable demands/ as the burning bush might have mistaken its flowers/ for flames or the rustling in its spindly branches/ for the indrawn, unreliable voice of God." Reminiscent in its brainy, bitter directness of Anthony Hecht's The Hard Hours, this poem announces a new register for McClatchy. Indeed, several of these poems move beyond earlier work, including the wryly confessional sonnet sequence "My Mammogram," the verse-anecdotes of Proust and Cavafy in rueful middle age and the already-much-anthologized "Late Night Ode," a Horatian lament in which another aging, disillusioned lover asks, "So why these stubborn tears? And why do I dream/ Almost every night of holding you again,/ Or at least of diving after you, my long-gone,/ Through the bruised unbalanced waves?" The intimacy of these poems, taken together with their classical control and ironical self-knowledge, confirms McClatchy as one his generation's brightest stars. (Mar.) FYI: McClatchy is editor of the Yale Review. Ten Commandments is appearing simultaneously with his essay collection Twenty Questions, from Columbia (see p. 62), and an Albany recording of his opera Emmeline, composed by Tobias Picker.

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.71(w) x 9.23(h) x 0.42(d)

Read an Excerpt

In the shower, at the shaving mirror or beach,
For years I'd led . . . the unexamined life?
When all along and so easily within reach
(Closer even than the nonexistent wife)

Lay the trouble—naturally enough
Lurking in a useless, overlooked
Mass of fat and old newspaper stuff
About matters I regularly mistook

As a horror story for the opposite sex,
Nothing to do with what at my downtown gym
Are furtively ogled as The Guy's Pecs.

But one side is swollen, the too tender skin
Discolored. So the doctor orders an X-
Ray, and nervously frowns at my nervous grin.

Mammography's on the basement floor.
The nurse has an executioner's gentle eyes.
I start to unbutton my shirt. She shuts the door.
Fifty, male, already embarrassed by the size

Of my "breasts," I'm told to put the left one
Up on a smudged, cold, Plexiglas shelf,
Part of a robot half menacing, half glum,
Like a three-dimensional model of the Freudian self.

Angles are calculated. The computer beeps.
Saucers close on a flatness further compressed.
There's an ache near the heart neither dull nor sharp.

The room gets lethal. Casually the nurse retreats
Behind her shield. Anxiety as blithely suggests
I joke about a snapshot for my Christmas card.

"No sign of cancer," the radiologist swans
In to say—with just a hint in his tone
That he's done me a personal favor—whereupon
His look darkens. "But what these pictures show . . .

Here, look, you'll notice the gland on the left's
Enlarged. See?" I see an aerial shot
Of Iraq, and nod. "We'll need further tests,
Of course, but I'd bet that what you've got

Is a liver problem. Trouble with your estrogen
Levels. It's time, my friend, to take stock.
It happens more often than you'd think to men."

Reeling from its millionth scotch on the rocks,
In other words, my liver's sensed the end.
Why does it come as something less than a shock?

The end of life as I've known it, that is to say—
Testosterone sported like a power tie,
The matching set of drives and dreads that may
Now soon be plumped to whatever new designs
My apparently resentful, androgynous
Inner life has on me. Blind seer?
The Bearded Lady in some provincial circus?
Something that others both desire and fear.

Still, doesn't everyone long to be changed,
Transformed to, no matter, a higher or lower state,
To know the leathery D-Day hero's strange

Detachment, the queen bee's dreamy loll?
Yes, but the future each of us blankly awaits
Was long ago written on the genetic wall.

So suppose the breasts fill out until I look
Like my own mother . . . ready to nurse a son,
A version of myself, the infant understood
In the end as the way my own death had come.

Or will I in a decade be back here again,
The diagnosis this time not freakish but fatal?
The changes in one's later years all tend,
Until the last one, toward the farcical,

Each of us slowly turned into something that hurts,
Someone we no longer recognize.
If soul is the final shape I shall assume,

(—A knock at the door. Time to button my shirt
And head back out into the waiting room.)
Which of my bodies will have been the best disguise?

Meet the Author

J. D. McClatchy is the author of three earlier books of poems: Scenes from Another Life (1981), Stars Principal (1986), and The Rest of the Way (1990). His literary essays are collected in White Paper (1989) and Twenty Questions (1998). He has edited a number of books, including The Vintage Book of Contemporary Poetry (1996). He has written four opera libretti, most recently Emmeline for Tobias Picker, commissioned by the Santa Fe Opera. He is a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, and since 1991 has been editor of The Yale Review.

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