The Next Best Thing
by Linda Back McKay
74 poems/90 pages/$16.00
Nodin Press, LLC
reviewed by Ed Bennett
“The Next Best Thing”, Linda Black McKay’s latest collection of poetry, is very much like a trifle. I don’t mean that it is inconsequential. I find it to be like that English desert where every spoonful discovers something new and sweet and somewhat surprising. She is an accomplished poet who combines her astute observations of her surroundings with a strong undercurrent of humor.
I was taken aback when I opened to Part I of the collection and saw a quote from Rilke. I was expecting long, dense metaphysical treatments of her subjects. Turning the page, I began her first poem, “On the Meaning Of”, and found my first of many surprises. Her first line is “This is what life does” and it begins a litany of beginning a day and moving through it with life granting small favors that drives one through this brief 24 hours of existence. Her humor is obvious from the outset bracketed by crystal clear imagery. She writes:
“ ….Life takes
what you thought you couldn’t live
without and gives you a heron instead.”
This transposition from Rilke to the lyrical and open discussion of life is startling, almost like a practical joke on the reader. Once the trap has been sprung, Ms. McKay enters the stage as a poet with a tongue in cheek view of the world around her. For the record, Part II begins with a quote from Bob Dylan and Part III begins with the immortal words of Lyle Lovett ordering a cheeseburger.
This is not to say that this collection is primarily humorous. Reading Ms McKay’s poetry is like having a conversation with a friend with a wise yet slightly skewed vision of her surroundings. Consequently, something as straightforward as a love poem begins with a series of observations that lead to an obvious conclusion. Obvious, that is, once the poem is completely read and one follows the images. In “The Orchid and the Bee” she writes:
“The orchid is not just a flower.
It is a complicated story
about red knowing yellow,
and torrid affairs with bees…..
Such pleasure today, to watch
bees on flowers, the way the bud
beckons and the stem sways….
This morning, when you wrapped
your golden-haired leg over my
smooth one, we stroked and rocked
with all those flower actions….
I love you so.”
The movement from the opening line to the last proceeds like a geometric proof that my quotes cannot truly capture in this review. I was almost expecting to see “QED” at the bottom of the page. This is a lovely poem, like the others in this collection is put together with the precision of a Swiss watch.
There is an amazing section in the book where Ms. McKay writes in the mode of other poets. It is neither satire nor imitation yet it is a poem written in the same voice and style as the poet. The poems are after the style of Kay Ryan, Rita Dove and ee cummings. Her poem “Gertrude Stein on Yeats, Etcetera” moves from William Butler Yeates through Robert Bly, Cary Grant, Picasso and comes to rest on William Carlos Williams with the lines:
William Carlos William Carlos William Carlos William Carlos
Williams Williams chicken Williams chicken chicken chicken
Williams wheelbarrows wheelbarrows wheelbarrows wheelbarrows
Williams Williams and Williams and Williams and Williams.”
The reader gets a good solid dose of Gertrude Stein’s linguistic playfulness and can almost hear William Carlos Williams laughing at her antics.
While some collections of poetry end with a long denouement, this book maintains its strength to the very last page. “Saying Goodbye to Lacy Cups” is a light comment about the arrival of middle age as seen through the eyes of a woman going through her lingerie drawer.
“I will miss your coquettish peaks in an opaque blouse,
your perky landscape under a sweater…
O, plain white underwear, my smooth and confident companion,
you are neither showy or uppity.
Your calm expands my every day.
To be simply and purely clad is a joy forever.
Farewell, my darlings.”
I have not read a poem that longs for lost youth and comes to a final acceptance that time has passed written with such a light touch. Of course, Ms. McKay passes this wisdom to us with the crooked smile of a poet having fun with the reader.
I have not had so much pleasure and outright fun since sixth grade when I discovered a volume of Ogden Nash’s poems in the library. Each poem is written with skill and is accessible to every reader. My only complaint about this book is that it is too short. Admittedly, 90 pages of poetry a good sized book but when the final page in the book is completed, one does crave more of this amazing poetry. Linda, when you read this, I hope you are working on another. If not, get cracking. We could all use more of your work.