Jen McClanaghan, River Legs, Kore Press, 2014
Reviewed by Christine Butterworth-McDermott
The title of Jen McClanaghan's debut collection, River Legs, refers to labeled body parts discovered at a crime scene, yet it is also reminiscent of the term "sea legs," in which passengers on boats try to hold position while rocking on water. Both of these ideas seem crucial to McClanaghan's lyrically rich poetry. She encourages us to honestly examine, with equal parts horror and love, "oddities pickled in a jar," at the same time suggesting this is no easy process.
There is a palatable sense of personal vertigo that runs throughout the collection—yet the questions and answers posed, while confessional, are always universal. How can one traverse this 21st century America, its spiderweb of refineries, kitschy carnivals, prison rodeos, and casinos? How can one navigate rivers of personal grief (the death of the poet's father is revisited in several poems) and feelings of displacement to finally gain stability?
The response is given voice multiple times, but with particular beauty in "Mid-Career": "I am a part of the unfolding, / as time moves in a gathering moan." McClanaghan allows both herself and her audience to find comfort in chance, hope, and love, even as we know the reprieve is temporary.
McClanaghan's unpretentious voice invites us to stand beside her to observe her detailed view of the world through a spyglass. Collectively, the poems act as an exploration of "small strides and love of crumbs" that make up human existence. McClanaghan has a particular interest in the lies we tell ourselves (and others) and then thoughtfully meditates on how we expose ourselves to the truth.
The honesty of the collection, as well as McClanaghan's consistent blending of the personal with the universal, begins in the opening poem, which was featured in Best American Poetry 2013. "My Lie" is at once a confession of lying to the OB/GYN about smoking and a greater plea to the self who has "not [let] the world in, / my words swallowed in a private wind, / my thinking too small to deliver me / to the edge of a greater valley." Eventually, however, McClanaghan suggests we must all face that "we are always moving toward the valley, / and the shadow of the valley / moving toward us."
This theme is revisited throughout the collection, and many poems include direct and poignant struggles with the passage of time. In "Yet Another World," she both adores and mourns: "tomorrow, there is yet another world: / the wonder of its replications, its births and pilgrimages. Its bruising that is sunset, / its tongue in the mouth of rain." Along McClanaghan's river of beautiful words, we stop again and again into the "unimpeachable gift shop of the past."
And yet, hers is not the static position of nostalgia. Ultimately, she recognizes that "her humped animal" is a "sort of optimism and ambivalence operating at once." This understanding of the balance of life's binaries (beautiful/ugly, living/dead, poor/affluent), is ultimately hopeful rather than defeating. As McClanaghan writes in "The Cairo Letters": "the beauty of time is that it moves on, / giving us many lives" from which we can turn back to "[wave] from another future." The small currents of our everyday experiences are part of the larger course of the river, both terrifying and encompassing.
Metaphorically holding our hand, McClanaghan shows us that through "our moments of me, we arrive at our personal truths." Through her deft navigation, we realize that her moments are also ours, leading us to respect our own ability to gain footing on this slippery deck of the world. We, too, she generously suggests, can let go of the lies and "secrets we accrue," to deserve a "miniature pardon," and stand firm until we make it to shore.