July 21, 2017KR Reviews

On Monica McClure’s Tender Data

Austin, TX: Birds, LLC, 2015. 145 pages. $18.00.

One important thing you can learn from Carl Jung is that alchemists were never actually concerned with changing iron into gold. Or the iron-to-gold part is the middle school variety of alchemy, and the Carl Jung variety involves scientists so deeply invested in the patterns generated by nature they’re willing to melt metals and hold their faces over the noxious fumes. What a surprise, inhaling noxious fumes leads a person to experience visions. I would like to say this is the experience of reading Monica McClure’s Tender Data, complete with noxious tone, vague shadow play in the background, and a clear, strong voice spelling out the identity of whoever this Monica McClure person is. “Monica, competing affects getting crossed,” says Monica McClure in the poem “Monica McClure.” “Monica, sleazy like the nouveau riche”; “Monica, blushing like purple areola”; “Monica, broken like tea leaves in the hand of Jack the Ripper.”

The poems in Tender Data are accumulative like this. You might come to one realization about who this she is in a poem, and then another poem takes you further into this she. She’s looking for Deep Truths or “Deep Truths” that are about living in the center of your humankind. And she’s been there. Or she was there. Or she could be there doing exactly what you were afraid she was going to do all along. With a poem like “Adderall,” after the men and abortions and the self-possessed recklessness, McClure turns the poem to what she actually wants:

I want to live in a kingdom of style and camp
I want to relate this smut to Vienna after the war
When finally those who really got glamour
despite their transience and poverty
with just a little industriousness could live
like movie stars in the bombed out rubble
Jean Rhys up to her dimples
in black market velvet and meringue
the chartreuse clouds hanging in the death sky

The poems in Tender Data are like a crucible they’re selling at Forever 21. They’re stuffed with panties and smutty broom handles and the Eye of Horus. And with every new object, you think, “Oh, now I’ve got the picture.” But, au contraire. There is more. It’s not just “Vienna after the war,” it’s novelist Jean Rhys “in black market velvet and meringue” and “chartreuse clouds.”

The effect is this combination of bounty and defeat. Like the two could be this mutual feeling. It’s a tonal note I often discover in current poetry. Enter speaker with arch posture who appears in one poem, then the next, so that “speaker’s posture” emerges as a poetic device. So then I think: How far removed does this posture position the speaker? How important is it that I “hear” the poet’s voice while I’m reading? Should I consider the speaker’s voice itself the content of the poem?

With McClure’s Tender Data, the key action is “listen.” Maybe “Listen to this” should actually be the title of every poem in the book. Think of that John Stuart Mill idea about the poem being simply overheard by an audience, as if the poet were in some other room reciting her piece, and we were listening in through the wall. But this is not McClure’s poem. Her work feels so conscious of my presence. Or I feel as though she is making herself present in the poem for my sake, which prepares her to speak directly to me, like we were in the same room. We are in a rhetorical situation together. And maybe this is why readers who don’t like the McClure type of poem get so frustrated when they read it—not just that they feel as though the real meaning of the poem is not accessible to them, they feel like the poet knows they’re there, and yet she’s not talking to them like they need her to be talking to them:

My work whether I mean it or not
is defamiliarizing

Would you ever accept cookies from men
who approach you on the street
or would you assume they mean heroin

No thanks to my contemporaries
for the street smarts

This hot swill in the chest is mine
and so is he and so is she

I don’t know how else to say this
There’s nothing inside me
worth fighting over

This quote from the title poem, “Tender Data,” is a good example of the rhetorical situation. First, McClure makes an acknowledgement on the reader’s behalf. “Yes, I’m aware that my poems put you off a bit.” This is itself ironic, as the tone here feels so familiar while the literal sentence tells us we should feel defamiliarized. And perhaps these “cookies from men / who approach you on the street” are a good way of thinking about this familiarized unfamiliarity. Such a wholesome gesture to offer someone cookies. Such a jarring realization to realize they might actually mean heroin. Every subsequent statement seems to be building from this. “I don’t know how else to say this,” McClure states. In exasperation? As matter-of-fact statement? I just keep thinking, after I finish each stanza, “So that’s the kind of person she is.” But then, I’m not entirely sure I know what I mean by saying “that kind of person.”

This poetic speaker who feels so involved, but then simultaneously detached, this is the device I see playing out in much recent work. Mary Jo Bang’s The Last Two Seconds draws on that same unmistakably present but still difficult-to-exactly-locate voice. Or how about Stacy Szymaszek’s Journal of Ugly Sites? How about The Pedestrians, by Rachel Zucker? Or Rome, by Dorothea Lasky? Should they all just be lumped together as “voice-based poets”? Perhaps that would prove helpful were there ever need to shelve the poetry section at a bookstore according to category of poet. But each of these poets employs this speaker so differently. With McClure, it just feels like everything matters. “I long to believe people hide / deeper truths in their genitals,” McClure says in the title poem to the book.

Perhaps what I am trying to say here is that describing a poet as “voice-y” is not all that interesting to me anymore. There are so many modes of voice and motivations for voice and means of voice being present, or only kind of present, or present as detached commentary, or so engrossed with its presence that the saying function is all that it’s doing the whole time. Don’t worry about what this voice is saying! Just listen! But I care very much for what McClure is saying, which is something distinct about Tender Data. I want to hear all this self-consciousness as it reports to me the nature of the data that forms it. All the facts and gestures and attitudes I need to know to know her. Should I call this, then, the fabric of the voice, or just the detritus left in the wake of this voice? Or who cares? Just listen to this, says Tender Data over and over again.

Kent Shaw's first book, Calenture, was published in 2008. His poetry has appeared in The Believer, Ploughshares, and Denver Quarterly. He teaches English and Creative Writing at Wheaton College in Massachusetts.