Dead Languages by Clint McCown


The poems of Clint McCown are, at once, droll and heartbreaking, as he tilts with the mortal surprises that foil even the most modest plans. His language is grounded in the everyday yet has a philosophical penchant -- the uneasiness that lies down at night with us and wakes with us in the beautiful morning and that is, in McCown's deft hands, our eager, if unwanted friend. -- Baron Wormser

Just when you think you've a handle on Clint McCown's exuberant angst, his one-on-one challenge to death, he startles you with another quick pivot and fade-away jump. No easy truths here, but a fine tragic-comic balance between "misfortune and sheer grace." Love of mystery and the many blind siding forms of our undoing duke it out in these verbally adroit, quick-witted poems. "Breakage has its upside," the poet says, and one sure sign of that is in the brilliance glinting through this book. -- Betsy Sholl

"Life is life, sometimes," Clint McCown deadpans in his collection's opening poem, and there is always a searching intelligence in his writing that eschews both cynicism and posturing, that is driven to assess the past, but refuses the easy blandishments of nostalgia or regret. It is refreshing, during a time when the period style in poetry favors the doctrinaire fracturings and dissembling of post-modernism, to encounter a poet of the Horatian tradition, one who seeks balance, lucidity, and above all a hard-won wisdom. Dead Languages is a serious and accomplished collection. -- David Wojahn


Latin Class Foreshadows a Separation

The bathtub overflows
and we call it love,
though some problems are insoluble.

Say you've had your grandfather's
overstuffed armchair twenty-five years 
and discovered that's long enough.
Is the yard sale a betrayal, or 
just a deus ex machina ending?

In our dreams we hide under porches
when the giants come
and pray deliverance from strangers
whispering our name.
The dark river offers drowning
in a salesman's voice,
the sky fills with sharpened wings.
There's much in every world
to flee from.

A diseased opossum hisses 
in a garbage can out back,
a woman puts her hot ankle on mine
and tilts her head to touch
my temple lightly,
a baby goat pulls at my pant-leg,
a jar of marbles
shatters from a shelf,
a spider sac opens in the night.
There is no logical progression here.

In Latin class, I sat
behind the beauty queen,
distracted every second
as I conjugated verbs.

Amo, amas, amat,
Amamus, amatis, amant:

this much I still know.

But some things aren't translatable.
I'm tired of walking down
highways of beautiful women,
tired of swallowing smoke
in God's bowling alleys.
Life should be more than the
culmination of my worst mistakes.

Amo, ammo,
the same word.
I love the stray bullet,
the arrow through the heart.

But absit invideo
let there be no ill will,

though tragedies accumulate.
Exempli gratia,
in Grand Central Station 
a limping man with 
paper dolls to sell 
calls out colors in a slurred voice. 
His shoes pulled him across 
the depot floor
like slow barges working upriver.

Sunt lacrimae rerum,
there are tears for things.

Fine, if that's a notion you 
can use. But every culture 
comes with limitations:
the Romans had no word for picnic.

Birds flock past a cathedral tower,
moving in loose concert,
like a flag snapping in the wind.
a straggler follows them northward.

When a language is dead,
why do we still speak it?


Total Balance Farm

for D.L. Cooper


What we can't say
is everywhere.

This morning while the younger stallion
rolls in dust to coat himself
against the flies, I pull thistles from
the barbed-wire stretch behind the pond.
The purple blooms look soft
and bright as childhood, 
but sting as deeply as the stalks.

Nothing friendly grows in fence rows.

I duck with care through the 
spotted shade of the Osage orange-
hedge apple, we call it here-
its branches lined with slender spikes.

By afternoon I've moved on to
the tight weave of buckthorn and briar
that curves across the floodplain
of the low front field.
Every fencepost leans rotten against
the slack of unstrung wire.
I bake beneath the glare of a clear sky,
my arms bloody with reprimands.

Back at the sheet-metal barn,
a small frog clings to a window pane.
A stork, the first I've ever seen,
passes purposefully overhead.
The house waits quietly,
though five blue-backed baby swallows
clamor from a nest above the porch.
The sun goes silver behind its usual hill.
Moments gather, possibly without end.

Still, what I can't say
is everywhere.

Dark is a narrow easement.
Dawn is a word I love.
Sometimes storms wash through the valley,
and the cold stream strays across the road,
but not today.

I scrape my boots clean
with a goat bone
left over from the dogs' night out
and think which portions
of the widening earth
I'll try to move tomorrow.

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