rev. of Ghost Letters by Richard McCann

Issue #66
Spring 1995

Poems by Richard McCann. Alice James Books, $9.95 paper. Reviewed by Rafael Campo.

A dear patient of mine, a poet himself, who died not too long ago from complications of AIDS, once explained to me why he spent so much of his precious time and energy writing. “My poems are in a sense the physical impression of me that I will leave behind in this world, almost like a ghost,” he said. In this forceful first collection of poems by Richard McCann, whose eery title,
Ghost Letters, establishes a communication between this realm and the netherworld, the dead are indeed restored to their physical bodies-never to haunt us, but rather to awaken us to the possibilities of reconciliation, healing, and desire in our own lives.

In what medium other than poetry as attentive and sensuous as McCann’s could such an elusive correspondence be conducted? “There’s no moon now. / Its sharp arc’s fallen. How can I tell where it was? /
If I could reach into the darkness, you said- / Or if I could reach beyond the exhalation of my breath . . .” he writes at the end of the long poem “Feast of Salt,” pinpointing precisely the intimate space in the imagination where these dialogues are allowed to happen. What transpires in this work is never merely a figment of the imagination, however; even the most obstinate of skeptics will find ample documentation of the physical evidence. Eschewing filmy apparitions, showy special effects, and cobwebbed memories, these poems are full of the harsh breath, the warm flesh, and the jutting bones of their subjects: “What I could not accept was how much space / his body was taking with it,” he writes of rubbing his emaciated lover’s back in the opening poem, “Nights of 1990”:
“So this / is the spine, I thought, this articulation / of vertebral tumors, this rope of bulbous knots; /
tissue, I thought, as I studied his yellowing skin- / tissue, like something that could tear.” One wishes only for more of the iambs and rhymes of the physical processes McCann otherwise so carefully records.

Many of the most satisfying poems in this collection, which received both the 1994 Beatrice Hawley Award and the 1993 Capricorn Poetry Award, thus confront with an unflinching eye the devastation wrought by AIDS. At once mournful and intensely erotic, full of astonishment at the steadfastly witnessed collision of sexual desire with undeniable mortality, the poems create a portal for the passing of souls; to stand in the circle of their music is to perform along with them a kind of blessing and valediction. The poem “After You Died” creates rich harmonies as it sings in these differently pitched themes: “I had a body. And I could recall / how it had been, back then, / to want things. Easy to recall that now- / this sun-dazed room; lilacs in white bowls. / But for a long time I was grateful / only for what your dying was taking from me.”

The reader, in turn, is grateful for what McCann takes from the world, and what-through the same alchemical process-he returns to it; burned away is all the bitterness, and in its place the reader discovers the unexpected softness and delicacy of ashes. Since these poems are ghost letters, in truth they can never be so destroyed, even as they consume themselves in their blazing energy. Richard McCann has written a moving missive to all of us, one which relates its terrible news with quiet grace, great conviction, and, in the end, inextinguishable pleasure.

Rafael Campo is completing his medical residency at the University of California, San Francisco. His first book of poems, The Other Man Was Me,
was published by Arte Público last year, and a collection of his essays is due out from W.W. Norton this autumn.