Intimate-driven, Chaotic, Incarcerating: Christine McNair’s Conflict

Some poetry books ask you to read them front to back. This one makes me dive in willy-nilly. It’s got a glorious catalogos. There are no clumpy book sub-sections, per se, but one-page poems that run straight the way through indeed gain “grouping” via three prose texts, each called “Interlude: Time Machine,” parts 1, 2, and 3. These each start with the word “Christine” and are super-dynamic aggregate texts of subjective check-in matter. They serve as portraits of a keen-brained writer-woman whose name echoes the author’s and who attends readings or awaits a book on press while incanting lists of affects she feels, qualities she bears, actions her body’s been involved in, songs she has sung. The majority of the (mostly) single-page lyrics—many of them tenderly lineated to keep a nicely aerated visual field—present an I who is pretty busy at feeling and doing: “I am agreeable company and always in demand” (“Chart”); “I am ancient I am careworn / I am paperstruck I am not / an initial I am no trouble” (“Floodlines”); “This part here is where / I could talk about babies” (“Third”); “don’t think I but / I and I and I and I” (“Conflict”); “there was lots / of stuff I never told you / and lots of stuff / I never will” (“Cochlear Impulse”); and “I know that banshees are born / in tree branches” (“This is What I Know”), to give just a few examples. There are so many striking moments of self-reflection and they are all so interesting that my readings prompt me to make an evidentiary list of some of them.

It is particularly fruitful to hold these reflective moments up against the other primary modality of this book: which is an intense, intimate-driven, chaotic, incarcerating, phrasal composition by sonic vivacity. McNair has got a near ear. Her textural play is fantastic: “pictures of kiwis pick / lipstick parrot wings” (“The State We’re In”); “cycle of oath and echo some sitcom” (“A Word From Our Sponsor”); “kitchen inflections trillium vicious” (“Indifference”); and “lateral scars parallel / slough in crop circles” (“The Restoration of Order and Virtue”). So the figure of “I” has to shout out and in to make itself a narratively, historically significant presence—however temporal—that brandishes its many deeply felt cares and invested gestures. This is not actually a playful or playing book. As becomes evident in her “Anti-Statement” of poetics at the book’s end, there’s a mild teabag of anguish threading its stain throughout McNair’s work about how self, experience, possession, meaning—all flee. I have lots of moments of wanting to slip away toward a purely musical reading. But McNair is a nervily thoughtful recordkeeper. At any moment forgetting might happen, so her readiness is a steeped poem. This is a terrifically loaded book.

Margaret Christakos is a worker in the field of letters. She has published eight poetry collections and a novel. Her new book Multitudes is out with Coach House Books in Fall 2013.


Arc Poetry Magazine: a catalog of glorious lyrics.

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