Michael Durack – Review of The Whole Picture Show by Arthur McMaster

Michael Durack lives in Co. Tipperary, Ireland. His work has been widely published and broadcast on local and national radio.  

Publications include a memoir in prose and poems, Saved to Memory: Lost to View (2016) and a poetry collection, Where It Began,  published by Revival Press in 2017.


Review of The Whole Picture Show by Arthur McMaster

(Revival Press, Limerick, 2021)

Poets setting out to establish the running order of their poems in a collection are advised to put their best foot forward, to make a strong initial impression on the reader. In My Neighbor, Friend and Colleague, the opening poem in Arthur McMaster’s collection. The Whole Picture Show, we are introduced to a poet who is blessed with a deep sense of humanity, an unshakeable loyalty to friends and colleagues, a keen appreciation of music and a mastery of poetic form, in this instance the pantoum with its mesmeric repetitions. (It is the first of many fine pantoums sprinkled throughout the collection.) The poem’s subject is Albert, recently bereaved of his wife of fifty-three years, applying his piano skills to the playing of Schubert’s Ave Maria while one lone light shines over his shoulder and the poet watches, transfixed by the haunting beauty of it all.

Albert is just one of many memorable characters from the pages of this collection. There are eccentric relatives like Uncle Jack and his wife Theresa who find self-expression in demonstrating their mastery of The Mashed Potato and The Locomotion while the poet wonders if he can return the favour by reprising some old Chubby Checker from his youth. In So Rare we encounter another childless couple, Uncle Gordon and Edie who bequeathed to the poet their treasured train set. Gordon is fondly remembered as a young man: the part time teen-aged telegrapher who once loved Jimmy Dorsey. The sentiments expressed in  Roscoe Buckingham are a moving tribute to the poet’s old 8th grade English teacher who fanned the flames of the young man’s creativity, but the imagery used in the poem is an even richer testament to the influence of that teacher who urged his students to write about something they’d observed

.. Rather like a hastily taken photo not yet quite in focus/An image needing a good dark room.

The Gift of Music celebrates the voice of Billie Holiday, and there is a musical soundtrack to many of the poems. In Nine Ways of Looking at Ravel’s Bolero the poet’s speculation about the motivations behind the piece’s composition reveals the full scope of his personality, his matter-of-factness, his earnestness and his wry sense of humour: Then again, the music may be little more/than whimsy, a notion; he’d had too much to drink?

In another poem his wife instructs him to switch off  Pagliacci because Leoncavallo’s characters don’t harmonise with the Lemon Chicken Pasta she’s stirring up so he puts on Don McLean’s American Pie instead. And looming in the background is the distressing news on CNN of the mounting pandemic tolls.

The geography of the poems ranges from Scranton to Wilmington, from Florida to Wheaton, Illinois, from Paris to Temple Bar. Irish readers will warm to the poems set in the territory of his maternal forebears such as First Notes on a  Connemara Poem where his panorama of the West of Ireland landscape gives way to a close-up of  one single, white primrose (that) hangs on/against the rain forging across the bay.

Perhaps the poems that leave the deepest impression are the ones concerning the poet’s memories of his parents. All the complexities of child-parent relationships are investigated, appreciation of the sacrifices made by the parents allied to the nagging realisation that appreciation often came too late. In Mortgage the poet regrets his failure to repay his father for his efforts: I might have offered to visit him more/watch the Yankees together. Drink a cold beer!/But I got busy; I wanted my fun.

In Gravity the sense of remorse springs from a misinterpretation as weakness of his mother’s sensitivity, her unparalleled/loneliness. But those poems contain moments of great tenderness such as the discovery, a few months before his father’s death, of a nearly-forgotten poem, once given as a birthday offering,  sitting atop the letters he’d saved from his own dad. (Let Silence Speak.)  In Moeller Street a visit to McMaster’s old home revives memories of childhood Christmases with all their secret thrills and mysteries: The cheery ornaments. Treats/on the nearby end table. Hushed voices …/What would you give to see them both/sitting there once more?/What would you give?

In the final poem, Notes for Rand McNally, which is set in Florida, McMaster remembers some long-ago student poets with whom he has lost contact, but before that he contrasts the wonders of The Sunshine State with some of its less salubrious associations. The poet notes the tragedy of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High and the shame of Mar-a-lago while celebrating the numinous sunsets off Louie’s Back Porch/at the western-most tip of Key West. The whole picture, as the title of this wonderful collection suggests.

 

Michael Durack.  September 2021.

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