Duncan McNaughton

This review (my first!) was published in The Chicago Review, Fall 1996.

The city that is within us haunts all of Poetry.
Robert Duncan
Duncan McNaughton has written a book of poetry that moves to the sweet staccato and rhythm of a street smart, down and out, intoxicated and lusty, city of the soul. The poems are sometimes loud and clapping, sometimes quiet and reflective, but are always extended with lines that are followed through to their bitter end.
The city in which the heart resides is a vast labyrinth where the frightful beauty of night, the desire for unattainable love, and dreams abandoned in old train cars all intersect. It is a city where the poet hears the call of the dead and the multiple sounds, thoughts, and words that are waiting for their form, waiting for the language that will give them substance through the poem. This summoning up of voices from all sorts of different pasts and contexts makes the poet into a magician, giving permission  for the dead and the weary, the soul-sick and the heart-broken, to speak. This event of summoning is always done within the realm of the quotidian, making every day in the city of Valparaiso a celebration of  trembling. Here, the mythic is not the tale of invisible gods, but is a story of souls, of human quests for dignity and authenticity.  Getting down to what still remains of the human in  language, this book flows and breaks off in lines that are strong and determined.
In a poem called “A small dinette in the country”, McNaughton questions our inability to hear those voices, perhaps from childhood, that speak of wonderful, frightening things like “automobile tires rumbling / across the planks of a railroad bridge, / clock chimes from a distant room.” The poem is posed as a question one might ask at the end of living, when old skin is shed for the new, when one decade turns into the unthinkable agony of another thousand years. In the midst of all this is the time took to look back into childhood and history and realize, once and for all, that they are inseparable. The poem is bravely nostalgic for all that was never learned from the minor details of our waking hours, the strange sounds and scents of the night that are always present in those hours, even if we are not paying attention. The ear for  this kind of listening resides in our hearts if only we would cast aside the “real sound of our  / ordinary world” in order to hear.
The world is alive with noises and dreams, suffering and war, and McNaughton wonders “how anyone can sleep tonight / on this continent / is beyond me.” Throughout this book the sounds come out from “the foggy darkness” and into the poems, making it evident that McNaughton has not been sleeping. He has been witnessing and recording. There is a great eruption in the middle of the book with the poem “Black Spoon” in which these voices and sounds come forth, combined with fragments of the poet’s own story, spoken in many languages, in “broken” English. The sentences themselves are broken apart in this particular poem, kinetically sambaing across the page.
His is a language that recognizes that words have certain privileges which are as varied and numerous as the poet’s glances through a city with many voices. What a privilege to be able to speak and be heard, to respond and to absorb, to offer a certain substance that is so lacking in this world of illogical atrocities against the people of the city who need the most help: “…the desperately ill, the bone-weary / the jailed, even the innocent…” His words are moving, not only because they urge response, but because they are alive with motion, are en-route through Valparaiso where love and murder can happen simultaneously.
This is a book that is blunt in its simplicity, harsh in its narrativity, uncomfortable and brazened, humorous and sad.  Language is used lyrically to wonder and to weep, to reflect and to prophesy, to inform and to proclaim. This is the complexity of gesture, the opening up of the poem to include a multitude of sources. Valparaiso is as complicated as is the passage of time, as is our sometimes rude relationships with each other, as are the human conditions we witness on our city streets each day, as are the multi-lingual mummerings we hear , as is love, as extinction, as flesh and as:
Men
and women, our hands
and time
fallen
falling apart.

3 Responses to Duncan McNaughton

  1. Bill Barrett says:

    Just so happens that before Duncan spun my mind off its axis I had attended Loretto Heights College circa 1971. Were you out of that set???
    Duncan later mentored me at New College in Sausalito and my life has been re-informed by his teaching and example ever since. I still reel. Thanks for this bit of resuscitation.

    • Wow really? My mother was a Sister of Loretto and in 1971 I was at Loretto Heights every week for mass and swimming in that glorious pool overlooking the mountains – remember the high dive?

      • Bill Barrett says:

        Yeah, I spent many a sunny afternoon lounging poolside idyllically. Or in idolatry, or adultery, or yeah, maybe adulation. I don’t know. Anyway, the only Sister I remember is Sister Jeanne d’Arc, ’cause she was such a pistol. But then I moved up to the mountains and wrote poetry at 12,000 feet, then on to Duncan McN in Marin County, then Naropa, and the rest, as they say, is mystery. Last I heard from D he was recovering from what seemed a fairly serious health issue, seemed OK tho, on his way back, still feisty.

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