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Marc McKee

Marc McKee is the author of five collections of poetry: What Apocalypse?, winner of the 2008 New Michigan Press / DIAGRAM Chapbook Contest, Fuse (Black Lawrence Press, 2011), Bewilderness (Black Lawrence Press, 2014), Consolationeer, and Meta Meta Make-Belief, forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press in 2017 and 2019, respectively. He lives in Columbia, Missouri with his wife and their son, and teaches at the University of Missouri.


In Consolationeer, lines soar beyond their bounds, turning sense into vector and idea to a winged thing. The end of the world comes just before daylight and love is simultaneously particular and apocalyptic, falling down in ashes around us. This is the crisis at its best. Consolationeer is Marc at his flyest.

– Amelia Gray, author of Threats and Gutshot

Nobody writes like Marc McKee. His voice is his own, as is his complexly word-deliberate, irrepressibly inventive manner. The result in Consolationeer is a concurrently heartbreaking and delightful tour de force. At the heart of this work is a deep passion, an exhilarating intelligence, and—beyond even these uncommon pleasures—an unshakeable compassion. He is our most wise young poet.

– Scott Cairns, author of Slow Pilgrim: The Collected Poems

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Consolationeer by Marc McKee


I read, reread and considered Marc McKee’s Consolationeer (Black Lawrence Press, December 15, 2017) on the bus, in the twenty-minute intervals allotted to me between home and work. This was, of course, a matter of practicality. Nobody really chooses to read poetry on a lurching, sputtering metal behemoth in the meager light of sunrise and sunset. There’s chatter from all directions, shoulders brushing against yours. The text scuttles around the page like a line of ants. In my native Chicago, some rides are gaspingly hot and others are glacial. There are often fellow passengers engaged in antagonistic conversations with one another or, more frequently, with themselves, and it’s hard not to dwell on the possibility, however remote, of danger. The windows are flipbooks of poverty and opulence, billboards and graffiti, homelessness and high-rises. Some mornings one misses one’s coffee. Some evenings find the brain bobbing in the marsh of a stressful day’s work. The bus is a maximally chaotic environment for the senses and typically not at all conducive to engaging with a text.

Reading Consolationeer in this setting, however, was a serendipitous exception. If you live in a major US city with an unreliable and unpleasant public transit system, I can’t recommend the pairing enough. McKee’s language is all rattle and excess, loose spokes and depressurizing fuselages. It is the literary approximation of whizzing past shop-fronts and construction sites and dog parks. In “O Passenger Manifest,” one of the later poems in the book, he writes:

…The bus is a colored cloud of ill portent

hanging by an axle disagreeing with a girder,

a baby tooth before before before.

After reading that passage, I looked around me and nodded with a little frown of recognition. Yes, I had indeed found myself anxious on an uncontrollable machine, lunging into who knows what horrifying consequence. Yes, I was balancing on a damp ledge. And McKee had managed to bore a peephole into that sensation.

The poems in Consolationeer are very much of a piece, and they thrive on the suspense of “ill portent.” This is a book about the apocalypse – how we define it, how we describe it, how we contend with it emotionally and philosophically. McKee is hoisting an impossible task upon his shoulders, of course. He’s attempting to make sense of comprehensive finality, to stand in the shadow of a tidal wave and point out the bright side. Even the title of the collection seems to balk at the enormity of its author’s ambition. We are prompted to consider the act of consoling the doomed alongside acts of exploring, piloting, inventing, crafting. We are not used to navigating this emotional territory; intrepid bushwhackers are in high demand.

Certainly, these poems have been sculpted more by machete than by scalpel, and I don’t mean that as a criticism. In fact, there’s a refreshing urgency to McKee’s shotgun style. I hear Eliot’s ecstatic distractibility, Schuyler’s sonic gymnastics and O’Hara’s restless melancholy, all filtered through the dirty chinois of cable news and global warming. A recurring motif is a match near ice, two mutually destructive forces accelerating one another’s demise. McKee writes like a mad chemist scrambling to whip up an antidote – for every soluble line there is a combustible one. And sometimes, he tinkers his way towards something truly revelatory, something that encapsulates all the terror and anger and hope and solidarity swirling around this most frantic of eras.

I can’t stop thinking, for example, of the opening lines to “How We Respond Is What It Means:”

At this time it is impossible not to love

at least one monster.

This is the type of observation we’re all sure we’ve made but somehow haven’t been able to articulate. It’s grammatically and conceptually “simple,” but it contains the depth and mutability of all the best poetry. Listen to clinical register in those first six words. They call to mind canned rejection letters, fatalistic meteorological reports, ultimatums from hostage-takers, insurance companies denying a claim. They ooze mutual disappointment. The phrase, “at this time” also serves to highlight the now-ness upon which these poems hinge. There’s desperation in the double-negative that follows, voice and sorrow in the words, “at least one.” A beautiful tragedy is compacted in these lines. And moments of such luminance pop up like prairie dogs throughout the book.

Sometimes, as in “It Has Never Not Been Thus,” McKee’s apocalyptic landscapes resemble Charles Simic’s, but with the heart shifted confidently to the sleeve. The poem is dire at first:

…It is night. A lemon scythe rises,

then overwhelms its fulcrum,

the plants camouflage themselves

in decline…

But it shifts dramatically at the end:

It’s a beautiful night

among the surviving leaves,

I am happy to be here.

Elsewhere McKee calls to mind Jay Hopler, as in “We Are All Going to Die, and I Love You,” which cheekily begins,

The world is ending again

only this time we are sure.

The poem mounts in anxiety and madness and lyricism, climaxing with,

…But but but! such fantastic plumage of viscera! such spirits

hot-glued to properties! such a muchness,

of dismantled wheels! Really?...

Those tonal changes offer a little glimpse of McKee’s signature move: the insertion of hazily optimistic, affirmative mantras in the midst of catastrophe. I think it’s fair to call them “consolations.” At times, I have to confess, this approach becomes a little predictable. One gets the sense that the poet is resting on his laurels a bit, dropping consolations like puffs of smoke in order to escape from despairing litanies. But when it works – as it does with impressive frequency – it works. The best McKee consolations come on like smelling salts, slaps to the face, adrenaline injections. They’re best when they’re heavy with irony and complexity, when they’re woven naturally into the text that precedes them. Take, for example, the following passage from the Schuyler-esque “Lately Indesolate:”

The yellow car de-hurries so rapid

it appears to ripple and bunch


in the rearview mirror: such a silly yellow

to be screaming that way,


followed after by wheelsmoke

like a languorous countercloud, train


of a wedding gown. Nothing happens.

Which is to say an awful lot very nearly



Here, the shift from disaster to serenity helps to philosophically frame both sensations. The reader questions his or her instincts – what does danger feel like? What does safety feel like?

I’m also drawn to these two contrasting passages from “Soft Watch:”

Any inventory is a story invented into life,

a swarm of pictures made to march,


this how we row our battered boat

into one now’s future…


…Here we stand among the bramble

of fallen calls and broken shields


and your eyes will not stop opening…

I caught myself reading this poem aloud at full volume and looked up to find a half dozen fellow commuters glancing nervously at one another. I may have been the crazy stranger on the bus before, but I hadn’t noticed until then. In any case, there’s an exquisite development in this poem from collapse to reconstruction, and it contains insight into McKee’s coping strategy. Listing these inventories, these invented stories, is a way to journalistically explore the decline of our civilization. Cataloguing the piles of detritus around us can serve as both diagnostic survey and meditation.

I would say that effect is most vivid in “Some Names of Ships,” my favorite piece in the collection. In it, the speaker walks down a bay and regards the names of docked vessels with alternating bemusement, melancholy and fear. The little lyrical treasures within are too multitudinous to list here, but I’ll point to an excerpt from the center, which I think is both apocalypse and consolation.

What can track a freckle of light right out

of netsnarl and gravity until you forget


you’re at the mercy of the sea?

Here’s Passengers, here’s One Train.

The name should be able to stay almost still


beneath the teeth of the broken champagne bottle.

Are we not always on some dock

choosing between Paradise and History?


And then some boats never launch

at all…

I used to fear the bus, long before I had no other choice. I didn’t like the confinement, the absence of an escape route should something go terribly wrong. I didn’t like how directed it was, how inevitable the stops. I was afraid of relinquishing control. Now, thousands of bus rides later, I can appreciate that all those worries were entirely called-for, but perhaps lacking in perspective. Because while a bus ride is quite like crowding a barrel full of strangers and hurtling it over a waterfall, it’s also a communal experience. An adventure, even. The person sitting next to you is infinite in his or her potentiality. All passengers are stripped of their egos and statuses for a moment. They’re all given to the contingencies of the vehicle. And in that strange, captive solidarity, there’s something exquisite. I think that’s what Consolationeer is about.

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