Reading Irene McKinney’s Last Poems

by Jeff Oaks

There are quite a few books waiting on my nightstand to be opened. Some are going to be “texts” for my classes next term. Some are books by friends. Some are books by competitors of sorts. Some are hanging around because they might be useful. It’s become a weird fact of my life that books have become less and less magic and more and more subjects of investigation. Such is the professional’s life of course. The more I know about writing and teaching, the more I try to see them as “useful” to me, personally and professionally. The more I want to see them that way, in fact.

So it’s rare that feel magic in poems. I see a lot of cleverness I admire. I see a lot of skill and earnestness and adventurousness. I have read a lot of poems that made me wonder what poems are, what the poet felt after writing it, what I should do now with my life.

So when I ran across this poem from the late Irene McKinney, in her last book Have You Had Enough Darkness Yet?, i was struck with what the director Anne Bogart calls betroffenheit, defined as ” the state of having been met, stopped, struck, or perplexed.” She uses the word at first in relation to the effect 9/11 had on Americans, but broadens it to refer to what audiences feel in the face of a powerful aesthetic experience. Bogart likens it to something Don Saliers, a professor of theology, describes as “a space and time engendered by the shock of the event where language ceases.” In which we meet and are met simultaneously. Equalled maybe. Is this what true love is?

Anyway, I felt met by Irene McKinney’s poems. Especially this one from which the book’s title comes:

Darkness Poem

Have you had enough darkness yet?
No, I haven’t had enough darkness.
Have you had enough fire?
Maybe.

Enough wind and rain?
Enough black ink?
Ask me again, later.

Have you had enough sugar?
Definitely.
Enough salt? No.

I haven’t had enough salt.
Are you finished with wringing your hands?
Definitely.

Finished with spiders and silks
and creatures of glamour?
Probably not.

Winsome looks?
Completely.
Pity? Never.

I feel pity right now
for everyone who got broken,
including me. Pity feels

like a sore and swollen heart
leaking blood and tears
so hot they sting.

Imagine that. Stay there.
Have you had enough of wind?
No. Enough of earth? No.

Enough water? No, not nearly enough.
Enough dirt to walk on?

No. Never, never.

It’s a poem about meeting, about being met. It’s an elemental meeting between two voices, who cares whether it’s the poet talking to herself or a god speaking to a mortal or a discourse of texts? I’ll admit that I’m biased here. I’ve been thinking a lot about my own mother who will be missing for the first time from my brothers and my life. I imagine this poem at least partly in my mother’s voice; I imagine it at least partly in my own in some future; it is also the voice of Irene whose red hair, smile, and laughter were all I ever knew of her the few times she came to the University of Pittsburgh to read.

And so I find it beautiful to read, to say out loud, to write out here. I don’t always know what poems are. Part of a good poem is always hidden from easy classification. Like the line that says, “Imagine that. Stay there.” Which seems to belong to a third voice, a voice that seems on the side of the sufferer and is part of a more complicated consciousness that mourning, if not run from, can engender.

So you might think of it as a winter poem as well. A few friends of mine are undergoing their own losses and probably asking and being asked questions similar to the poem’s. I wish they’d been spared the dialogue, but there it is. I hope they answer the same way.

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