Poetry for Southern California
1000 Black Umbrellas
Write Bloody Publishing www.writebloody.com
The best of poets are true illusionists. They craft poems complex in content and theme that read easy and suggest they were of no struggle for the poet to write. This of course is not true—one can only imagine just how meticulous a poet really is whose work appears so effortlessly dynamic on the page. Daniel McGinn is one such poet; in his debut collection of poetry, 1000 Black Umbrellas, published by Write Bloody Publishing, he beguiles his readers into believing he’s something of a magician.
This book is explorative—examining a man’s relationship with his mother and father, his wife, and even his own body—with a bold, yet restrained honesty. He shows a true gift for the confessional by avoiding exaggerated sentimentality and never editorializing. McGinn follows the show-don’t-tell-rule of writing with an absolute grace, and the result is a stunning collection of poetry deeply rooted in a parade of emotions.
There is no better example of how McGinn braves painful subject matter for the prize of beautiful poetry than how he reflects on family dysfunction. He does a fantastic job propelling us into the past in poems such as “My Part in the Musical,” “Inkblot,” and “Between You and Me,” but it is in the ones set in the present that I believe McGinn really reveals his remarkable skill as a poet.
In “A True Story,” the narrative explores the distance that exists between a father and middle-aged son. The speaker’s father must be told to join his son for a walk, who nine days prior just had heart surgery. But it is McGinn’s direct and concise use language that complements this theme of distance and embodies the somber tone of their relationship. The last line of the first stanza is simply, “I have to move.” When juxtaposed by how the speaker’s father makes him sit and wait while he goes into a liquor store to buy a lotto ticket, the reader cannot help but feel the detachment between the two. In fact the last stanza of the poem exemplifies one of McGinn’s greatest strengths as a writer—his ability to have what is left unsaid speak volumes:
As we approach the entrance
Dad hands me a his beer
and tells me to sit on the electrical box
and wait for him.
I was 12 and my Dad was 30.
The beer was really a Pepsi
and the liquor store was really a bar.
The whole poem succeeds in the last stanza’s abrupt turn, moving from the present into the past in its final three lines. This allows McGinn to show how the relationship has gone unchanged over the years without falling into the trap of editorializing, thus allowing the reader to take an active role and discern the poem’s meaning for themselves.
McGinn demonstrates this strength once again in the poem, “Mother II,” wherein the speaker mourns his mother’s dementia without a trace of overt sentimentality. McGinn accomplishes this with a strong use of metaphor and imagery. The first line in the third stanza, “This is the train where the brakeman died,” is arguably the best line in the poem, serving as a perfectly vivid metaphor comparing dementia to an unstoppable force. He conveys a feeling of ‘helplessness’ without ever having to say the word, and makes use of seemingly simple images and facts to illustrate such emotionally loaded, complex material:
She tosses her scraps on the lawn for the dog to eat.
The dog has been dead for years.
She keeps trying to remember the dog’s name.
She has forgotten the names of people in the pictures on her wall.
Following the stanza above, the poem turns from third to second person—a shift which moves the focus away from whatever it is the speaker may feel, guiding the reader to make their own associations. The last stanza directs us:
You bite your lip,
you don’t disagree,
you wonder what will happen to your mind.
The final line is quite effective. By directing us to contemplate our minds’ deterioration, McGinn ends the poem for us to finish—leaving us in silence after such a heavy close, to decide for ourselves what those thoughts may be.
Though all his poems dealing with family offer a great deal of candor, no poems in the collection are more courageous for their openness (no pun intended) than those dealing with the topic of open-heart surgery—a procedure McGinn experienced in his own life. While one can never assume the speaker in poems is the poet himself, it is evident in poems such as, “On The Table” and “Post-Op” (two of my favorites in the collection) that the voice is McGinn’s and the emotions driving it, painfully honest. In “On The Table,” he writes on the frightening subject of one’s heart betraying them and finding themselves on an operating table, but “hardly there.” The poem is misleadingly conversational, but full of poetic splendor—rich metaphors, careful attention paid to sound, and efficient line breaks.
Folks wearing masks and colorful caps cut my sternum
open—blue scrubs and gloves leaned in—the music
of pumps was everywhere. I don’t know if my ribs creaked
In these first three lines to the second stanza we see just how aware McGinn is to the “music” of poetry—the consonance of the hard “c” sound in the first line and the off rhyme between “scrubs” and “gloves” in the second. He also effectively enjambs the second line with the word, “music” and creates a gorgeous tension when he follows it with the image of “pumps everywhere,” in the next line. McGinn is also not short of finding interesting new metaphors for the heart, comparing its shape to a “communion wafer” and referring to it as the “priest of his body. But it is his conversational style in this poem that wins me over—where profound reflection comes disguised in rather simple moments of admittance: “…I don’t know at what point/or for how long the mechanical pump stood in for my heart./I do know it confuses all my religious notions about that/muscle.”
In contrast, “Post-Op,” the poem directly following “On The Table” in the collection, is written with a minimalist approach—four stanzas of short lines—but is just as powerful. In it the speaker shares his rehabilitation following the surgery and his trepidations of his frailty. Lines like: “I have grown afraid/of children reaching for my hand” and “I am afraid of the sudden/impulses of dogs” embody this theme. These specific examples go to show just how fearful the speaker is of his body’s reaction to even the most harmless of acts. Again, McGinn masterfully conveys emotion with but simple, direct imagery and as few of words as possible. And, with the last stanza the reader is hit square in the gut with the “ache” the speaker must be feeling in more than just their shoulders:
Thank you for visiting.
I am cautious with hugs.
My lungs hurt without mercy.
My shoulders ache to be used.
McGinn certainly knows how to affect a reader with but merely a few choice words. He has an understanding of how too many words can get in the way of their power. In different poem, “Driving Home Late,” the speaker even confesses:
I know about words;
words would bruise the moment
like a drunk pedestrian
stepping on the flowers.
This understanding allows his work to be enjoyable to varied first-time audiences, while also rewarding with multiple readings. And it is this keen attention paid to craft, which makes it appear as if it comes easy for him—a sign of a truly gifted, diligent writer. McGinn reminds us that great poems levitate from off the page, hiding any trace of how, and all we can do is marvel at the magic.
The very first line from the opening poem in the book humbly suggests, “You don’t have to read this.” I’d argue you do. Daniel McGinn’s 1000 Black Umbrellas is the best kind of collection of poetry—one that takes the reader on an honest emotional journey, never telling us what we should feel, merely showing us how.
Eric Morago is the author of What We Ache For, published by Moon Tide Press. He teaches poetry workshops to at-risk youth and is the California Workforce Association’s Poet in Residence. Eric holds an MFA in Creative Writing from California State University, Long Beach.