Review of Al Maginnes’ “Greatest Hits”

by Scott Owens

by Al Maginnes
Pudding House, 2010
ISBN: 1589989317

I admire Al Maginnes, his optimism, his zest for life and passion for all things human, his empathy, his lyricism, his long but still seamless and uncluttered lines, his fluid syntax, his spot-on metaphors and conceits, his ability to tell a good story and reveal the significance of it with a subtlety that lets the reader experience the poem’s cathartic and epiphanous moment as if it were their own, and now his ability to be his own best editor. In his new book of poems, Al Maginnes: Greatest Hits, Maginnes selects from 23 years worth of poetry only 12 to be included as “greatest hits.” I’ve written half as long as Maginnes and don’t think I could do that. Somehow I’m sure all the poems I didn’t select would turn against me. The amazing thing about Maginnes’ selections, however, is that he got it right. I’ve read most of Maginnes’ work over the years, and if I had to choose just 12 to keep, it would be these.

Another of the more admirable qualities of Maginnes’ poems is their ability to capture the full sense of some vital human abstraction — to be the kind of poem that leaves a reader nodding his head, if not saying, “Ah, yes,” in recognition and appreciation. It seems almost silly to single out poems from a collection of only 12, but singling out poems as illustration of one’s points is what a reviewer does. So, four poems in particular from this collection stand out for their embodiment of longing, regret, and perspective.

The first of these is “Sharks in Kansas,” a remarkable poem of romantic longing that imaginatively revisits the road not taken. The speaker of the poem tells us:

. . . For two years, she
and I tracked each other’s moves,
both of us in love with other people

and happy most days, but curious
about the quick flame of sun
on water we had seen in each other.

and later

When she said “Florida. Paleontology,”
I did not move to wrap her in the thoughtless hug

I might have offered someone else, but said
“Arkansas” and “poetry.” When she asked, “So, when
will I see you again?” we both knew the answer.

And all of this buried longing is sparked through a wonderful associative logic brought about by a news story concerning the discovery of fossilized shark remains in Kansas, which the speaker describes in a delightful conceit for that longing:

There are sharks, sharks in Kansas, still
swimming in water that has turned to stone,
bent in the memory of tides

to the exact angle I once saw her arm bend
across her lover’s shoulder . . . .

Another poem rich in associative logic is “Elegy with Clifford Brown Playing Trumpet.” This beautiful revelation of perspective about the importance of the “white space” or “negative space,” the absences, loss, and ultimately, mortality that give meaning to all human endeavor begins with a mystery the speaker is reading and ends in greater appreciation of the contributions of both musician Clifford Brown and poet Larry Levis and in a deepened understanding of the limitation as motivation. My favorite moment in the poem is the breathless unfolding of something as unimaginable to us all as death. The speaker tells us that somewhere in the laments of Larry Levis

lurked the hand that will come one day to touch us,
perhaps right when we are in the middle of things,

& lead us into a puzzle of streets
that we only understand slowly we will not
find our way out of, although that matters

less & less as the blacktop buckles and thins
to cobblestones, then to dirt, as we walk out of our shoes
until we are walking on nothing and then

we are not walking at all & the way back
to all we have left undone is forgotten.

The third truly remarkable poem is one of Maginnes’ best narrative reflections, and it also about perspective. In fact, “To the One Who Stole My Lawnmower” might be called a parable of perspective. The speaker of the poem reveals that not only has his lawnmower been stolen but that he knows the person who has stolen it and is aware of that person’s situation as well. The reader follows the speaker through all the usual stages: anger, guilt, blame-shifting, acceptance, and understanding to conclude:

. . . the truth is
the loss of my lawnmower has become a story
and, like most stories, gets told for laughs.
But I can laugh even when, like today,
I sweat like a rented mule, forcing
the motorless contraption I use to cut grass now
through high weeds, because my life is not yours.

The final poem that stands out for me differs from most of Maginnes’ work in that the lines are shorter and essentially syllabic, as opposed to his usual predominately tetrameter or pentameter lines, but “Legend” retains Maginnes’ characteristic syntactical mastery and his knack for embodying a common and vital human emotion–specifically, in this case, regret. The poem is about a lost opportunity to see and hear the folk singer Carolyn Hester in person, and the speaker concludes

Even if all she had done
was chant the famous names
of her dead husband or her
new god, even if she denied
completely or insisted
upon being defined by
her past, even if time has
done to her what it has done
to all of us, I should have gone.

In typical Al Maginnes fashion, the poems collected in his Greatest Hits achieve what is poetry’s most important task, the deepening of our experience of the world as human beings. This thin volume is a wonderful introduction to Maginnes’ lifework for those who have only now discovered it. It is also a perfectly representative selection of all that makes Maginnes’ work important for those who have been fans for years. Ultimately, it should be a standard part of any poetry lover’s bookshelf.

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