We Can't Ever Do This Again. Amber McMillan. A Buckrider Book. Wolsak and Wynn. Hamilton, Ontario. 2015.
Let's just start with the title. Today's book of poetry is a big fan of titles and We Can't Ever Do This Again ranks right up there with the King of Titles, Sir Charles of Bukowski. He rained downed titles like The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over The Hills and Play The Piano Drunk Like A Percussion Instrument Until The Fingers Begin To Bleed A Bit.
Amber McMillan cooks things at a very specific temperature. We Can't Ever Do This Again constantly simmers just below the boiling point. Nothing is going to burn but it sure is going to cook.
There is a knowing tenderness in McMillan's but there are no soft edges here, these poems cut just as deep as they need.
Bryson, Quebec, 1996
The question of which is worse
is complicated more by the following
things: I know what I saw. Bright
headlights swept the forest corner
where the thick wood met the road.
I saw the man or ghost boy or boyish
girl caught in the sweep, front-lit
for no more than a second, squatting
on a flat belly between pine trees
and brush, the dark pitch of foliage
shadowed and skewed by the beam.
I saw his or her shirt, button-down,
his or her pants, black, and glassy
glasses, then at the ambit, the car
slide around the corner leaving it all
still again, everything exactly as it
had been before the headlights.
A child myself, the choice became
to remain paralyzed on the road
in terror, or to give in to the sharp
quake of adrenalin meant to mobilize
survival, to run as fast as possible up
the steep hill to your house where
you are sure to greet me sidelong,
drunk-shot and gearing for a fight.
It's a non-choice but I made it,
running for what I thought was my life,
and then to you: manic, scribbling
at the dining room table - a letter,
you told me later, to an infuriated
teacher who had a hand in your
recent termination from the school:
There's no such things as ghosts, dear.
What there are, are crazy people sitting
in the woods in the middle of the night.
Amber McMillan is willing to dish out some pretty harsh reality sandwiches in this buffet. This stuff is slick.
We Can't Ever Do This Again reminds Today's book of poetry just much we like to be astonished. These poems march right into your heart, move the furniture around.
Our Wedding Day
When you forget, I'll remind you. I'll describe something
about the flowers, or the leaves on the trees, I'll tell you
something about the weather, about what that means.
Do you remember now? When you took my face
in your hands, firm where you stood, as soft
as you could (I think you remember now)
you said, "My name means clearer
of the woods." I whispered back --
only you could hear (for the rain
and the thunderclap were near) -- I
said, "My name means the place
between, my name means
You remember now. It was a lovely
ceremony. No one we knew
Our newest intern, Kathryn, took over this mornings read. Not sure her mind was on We Can't Ever Do This Again because she read every line like an accusation and after every line she shot eye-daggers at Milo who was visibly shrinking in the corner. Kathryn was doing McMillan justice, it was a passionate read - but it was clear there was another agenda in play, another dialogue taking place. Milo looked like he was sitting on fire-ants.
We Can't Ever Do This Again reminds me of the first time I read St. Sharon of Olds. Today's book of poetry has all the time in the world for this type of critical hopefulness. These sort of smarts.
Did I ever tell you the one about TB?
None of this is unfair nor is it surprising,
but there he is, sheltered from the hard
ruby sun inside the dingy white Red Cross
tent. The first of the many trailing wounded
is a thirty-something woman with TB --
and a nasty set of lesser ailments by
comparison -- being handled up the laneway
toward the tent. She's coughing and it's
hot, and phlegm is collecting and spilling
from her every opening: Do you have TB yet?
He shakes his head no, and with that she
gathers up and spits out her next mess
of human mire, aiming as close to his mouth
and eyes as possible, the nearest and most
efficient passageways to infection.
We Can't Ever Do This Again feels a little like a guilty pleasure. This a monster first book of poems, I'm almost sixty and I'm still waiting to be this wise.
(photo: Nathaniel G. Moore)
ABOUT THE AUTHORAmber McMillan’s poems have appeared in The Puritan, CV2, Forget Magazine and subTerrain among others. She currently lives on Protection Island, BC. We Can’t Ever Do This Again is her first book.
BLURBS“Amber McMillan has a keen eye for the luminous and the absurd. Her directness of address and tenderness of outlook make this book a terrific debut.”
- Sharon Thesen, author of A Pair of Scissors and The Good Bacteria
“It is a rare gift for a poet to successfully recombine the binaries of existence, the nuance of simultaneously feeling joy and grief, love and isolation, hope and cynicism. Rarer still for the poet to achieve this by using her craft as a microscope, its lens keenly focused on details of the everyday. Even rarer, I’d say pseudo-magical, for her to enable me to actually experience these contradictions jeas I read, as though the reading became an act of complicity. Amber McMillan’s poetry is an example of the earned, the hard won, the bruised and bittersweet right to express what might be honestly beautiful about us.”
- David Seymour, author of Inter Alia and For Display Purposes Only
“It’s the mix of exasperation, outrage and wonder towards living implicit in McMillan’s slyly titled We Can’t Ever Do This Again that has fed that ‘other stream’ – a rich, demotic voice that feels delivered so intimately you can almost feel the breath. Readers of Michael Longley, Kathleen Jamie, Seamus Heaney and Jack Gilbert will find in McMillan that perfectly calibrated balance that allows the reader to fall deep into the poem’s sinkhole of thought and emotion, uncovering the necessary innocence and unknowing so vital to a memorable work.”
- Jeff Latosik, author of Tiny, Frantic, Stronger and
reads "Variant C"
at Hamilton's LitLive Reading Series
video: Wolsak and Wynn
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