Thomas Fink

a review of
Sandy McIntosh's Forty-Nine Guaranteed Ways to Escape Death

Forty-Nine Guaranteed Ways to Escape Death
Sandy McIntosh
Marsh Hawk Press, East Rockaway, NY, 2007
ISBN: 978-0-9792416-1-1

In Forty-Nine Guaranteed Ways to Escape Death, Sandy McIntosh, author of five previous books of poetry, has perfected the list-poem. One of the most remarkable of these is “Insignificant Meetings with Remarkable Men,” which is dominated by prose-poetry but includes several sections of verse, and which has a fake epigraph from Gurdjieff on Hamlet, “The un-readiness is all” (13). What makes anticlimax after anticlimax interesting is that each is provocatively unsettling or strangely reassuring.

When the allegedly “three or four” year old “Sandy” in the poem’s first section meets Eisenhower “during half time” at a college football game—and note that Ike was not, as stated, an “ex-president” in 1950 or 1951, but about to run for the first time—the celebrity of World War Two gives a standard greeting: “’How are you, my boy?’ Eisenhower asked, petting my head. ‘I have to wee-wee,’ I supposedly answered. He bent down and supposedly confided, “I do, too’” (13). Since he understands the meaninglessness of celebrity and propriety to a young child, Eisenhower brackets his “remarkable” status and simply feigns equality with the boy. However, on another level, he is merely being accurate: small boys and soon-to-be old men generally have to urinate more than teenagers or those in early middle age. The encounter may be “insignificant,” but Ike’s self-humanizing gesture oddly enhances his stature.

The negative traits of the great interfere with their desire and/or ability to communicate facets of genius and thus sometimes doom others’ encounters with them to be “insignificant.” As a recovering alcoholic, Willem de Kooning liked to see others fall prey to the vice he had temporarily eluded, but he also had a secondary motive:

Once at his studio on an errand, I’d brought my girlfriend. De Kooning offered me a tall glass of Scotch. Then on the wagon, he insisted on watching me drink. When I’d finished, he rubbed his hands together. “Well now,” he said as he looked at my girlfriend. “Well, well, well!” And he grabbed for her, chasing her around the studio. We fled soon after, despite his kind offer to show us his latest paintings. (15-16)

Can one anticipate and work around a genius’ negative traits? Perhaps the speaker should neither have brought his girlfriend to the studio nor have accepted the Scotch. But did he have the leisure to plan his momentous “errand” perfectly? Such opportunities randomly arise within the hectic flux of daily activities. Careful planning is often impossible, as when the speaker in section 14 runs into Joseph Campbell at a party without having read any of his books on mythology (17). And a young person cannot be expected to anticipate (and thus profit materially from) a schoolmate’s future success; all the poet can tell us about his relationship with the teenage Donald Trump is that “At school, he was always nice to me, though he never laughed at my jokes” (14). If we expect Trump to have been relentlessly competitive with everyone, we’re wrong, but the second detail confirms a widespread perception of the tycoon’s humorlessness, often attributed to his absolute focus on “the deal.”

Another powerful list-poem in this collection is the title-prose-poem, which considers the ultimate phenomenon for which one cannot really prepare. Death has been an important theme in McIntosh’s previous three books; here, the title “guarantees” a prolongation of life or an “escape” from mortality itself or a mental escape from the reality of one’s own and others’ deaths. Actually, “forty-nine. . . ways” are not delivered; there are 29 sections in the poem, one of which announces the withdrawal of an item. The volume’s cover features a bottle with a label similar to those used by nineteenth century snake-oil salesmen. McIntosh’s poem provides a parody and critique of the machinations of such salesmen and their customers, who aim for an escapism that merely defers a grim confrontation with the actual guarantee of the real. But the poet also fosters compassionate understanding of psychological processes in coming to terms with the great challenge, the full recognition of mortality’s implications.

One technique for averting death is risk avoidance, but, unfortunately, anything can be deemed risky: “Do not open this door. Do not open that door. . . . Neither the porch door, nor the front door. Neither the closet door, nor the refrigerator door. . . .Don’t open the door marked “Come in.” Don’t open the trap door” (41). When prohibitions multiply endlessly, one relinquishes any opportunity, thus banishing enjoyment and edification and experiencing death-in-life. The next section’s fake syllogistic reasoning posits permanent homelessness as the way to live forever: “Do not live at home. Most fatalities occur in the home” (42). If one lives in the street, doesn’t that become one’s home? Ironically, avoidance of comfort and pleasure may destroy basic reasons for survival and may induce a depressed state and life-shortening physical effects. The failure to accept someone else’s death can have similar consequences, as in section 13. George’s complaint “to his religious friend that, no matter how much he had prayed, his father had not come back from the dead, as Jesus had promised” is countered by the friend’s confident faith in the prayer’s eventual success: “It could be one year, or one thousand years. Just wait” (39). George is so impressed that he is willing to sacrifice the variety of his own future to fulfill his desire: “’I’ll just sit right here until it happens.’” Does he figure that he might die in the meantime without having lived?

McIntosh merrily deflates the myth that survival is always a matter of individual will. In the penultimate section, willpower involves the ethical challenge of carrying out a hypothetical promise to non-existent beings: “My children (if I had any) tug at my shirtsleeve. “Daddy,” they beg. “”Please don’t die.” Although I do not have children, I promise them anyway: “I won’t die. I’ll stay alive. For you” (42). This is both ridiculous and psychologically realistic at the same time. Naturally, actual children, fearing loss of security, demand their parents’ immortality, and parents long to be able to provide absolute security, while at the same time fearing the horrible prospect of surviving a child. How could parents say to a small child, “No one knows when he or she will die. Despite the law of averages, both of us could die tomorrow; your security isn’t guaranteed”? A childless man’s sense of responsibility to others could easily spur a desire to prolong his life, but altruism or a sense of family responsibility has no greater power to produce deathlessness than self-interest. Children learn soon enough that parents lack supernatural powers. The promise of a fake parent and a real one are equally impossible to fulfill, and the speech act of a promise masks its status as a temporary assurance based tenuously on probabilities.

As in another strong prose-poem on death, “At the Funeral Home Bar” (55-56), McIntosh ponders how conventions of mourning reflect attitudes toward death. In the first section, “Aunt Elizabeth,” who “didn’t believe in death,” proposes a fantasy of baptism as resurrection: “’Just go up to the coffin and sprinkle water on his face. He’ll wake right up. You’ll see; they always do’” (37). The daft assertion reminds us of the reason for open coffins: to help mourners see the deceased as though alive but sleeping, even if a mortician’s art succeeds only occasionally. But does this practice really create one last positive memory? In section 2, the observation “’My, doesn’t she look healthy?’” suggests that open coffins fail to create either a temporary escape from the sad fact of someone’s death or a positive reminder; it engenders a disturbing double image: waxy death as a pathetic parody of living. Further, the appearance of health—thanks to the mortician—is useless to the deceased and wasted on her.

Another convention of mourning (apostrophe), constitutes an act of imaginative compensation for the absolute separation of living and dead:

When all seems lost, write a letter to your departed loved one and pay to have it printed on the obituary page. Apparently, the deceased read obituary pages, judging by how many letters to them are printed. Now the problem is to figure out which newspapers your own departed ones read. (40)

Ironically, even though intended readers are “all” “lost,” such apostrophic letters actually allow the bereaved to discover their feelings and reinvigorate memory. The poet’s demystification is most striking in the last sentence: presuming lack of belief in an afterlife that maintains contact with the world, dead people are marked precisely by their inability to learn about current events through the media or any other source. The present is closed to them, and nothing happening now can alter their individual history.

Various poems in Forty-Nine Guaranteed Ways to Escape Death address the interaction of psychological violence and egotism and (also, at times) apparent acceptance of victimization. In the prose-poem “Their God,” McIntosh tropes on the wrathful Old Testament Jehovah and the Roman Jove: “One afternoon, their God announced that he would destroy the world. (Someone had made a silly joke about him and, as usual, he’d taken umbrage.)” (47). Declaring that he intended to “teach [them] a lesson . . . in a way [they’ll] understand, the god “announced that he would build an explosive device of incomprehensible explosive power.” However, “he” then “disappeared into our city,” doing ordinary tasks until he was able to become “a community big shot.” After a while, “anyone could see that he was enjoying himself,” and people “began to relax” (48). Nevertheless, the threat remained “there like an annoying insect, buzzing and biting when you’d least expected it.” When the speaker asks in frustration, “’Why doesn’t he just get it over with?”, his wife has a plausible analysis: “’There’s something about these immortal beings,’ she said. ‘They’re thinking, “Screw ‘em! We’ve got all the goddamn time in the world.”’”

Is “their god” a figure for U.S. Christian fundamentalists who wish to obliterate or forcibly convert those pursuing divergent lifestyles? They do not blend in with other communities nor do they bide their time before pursuing their agenda. While Islamic fundamentalists have held the threat of another 9/11 over the U.S. for the last six years, and while would-be terrorists who may have snuck into the U.S. must “disappear” into a community to prepare to carry out deadly activities, such individuals don’t call enough attention to themselves to be judged worthy for candidacy to public office; they naturally eschew such scrutiny. Neither does McIntosh’s narrative quite fit orthodox Jewish extremists in Israel who want to destroy the chance of a Palestinian nation or Indian Hindu nationalists who would be happy to wipe out Moslem Pakistan.

However, the lack of full analogical correspondences suggests that the poet wants us to consider, more generally, pathological thinking that extreme religious groups have in common. Each has developed a construct of “their god,” saturated it with ideological significance, and hallucinated their fusion with the divine will of (what they don’t recognize as) their own construct. They think “their gods” have directly told them exactly how to behave. The “immortal beings” have supposedly filled them with a view of eternity and their place in it: murder of “infidels” and the game of delaying terrorist acts after making threats are not acts of violence and psychological torture respectively but a gradual achievement of divine justice. True believers can share the feeling of having “all the goddamn time in the world” with their constructed “god,” as they “know” that they possess the Truth, and this possession entitles them to ultimate victory; they do not have to rush to achieve it. In McIntosh’s narrative framework, the “we” which includes the speaker does not share “their” religious beliefs but seems to share the hallucination fusing “them” and “their god” (by ignoring “them” and focusing on “him”). They perceive the evil power of the god whom they do not worship. Therefore, the speaker and his victimized community fall into one of the main traps that the victimizers do: “we”—a group that careful readers attuned to the poet’s dramatic irony can stand outside of—do not see that a metonymic displacement (hallucination) has taken place, perhaps because “we” would rather blame supernatural forces than realize how evil arises in human beings from their own irrational thinking. But “we,” like astute readers, are still able to grasp how the egotism and arrogance of the powerful cause a threat of violent injustice.

In a review of an imagined author’s collection of poetry, “Argol Karvarkian, Otiose Warts (Bergen: Univ. of University Press, 2006),” the unnamed reviewer discloses how he has devoted his entire academic life to what cited passages indicate is the work of woefully inept, tuneless, silly poet, whose development from a “primitive, brutish sensibility” to “minimalist clarity and grace” (66) is made a cause for celebration. But he also narrates how Karvarkian has stolen and, bored with his catch, has returned each of the reviewer’s forty-six wives. Unlike Dr. Kavorkian, who helps end the lives of those who are in relentless pain, Argol Karvarkian ends marriages that have practically begun. Not surprisingly, the major figure in the poetry is “the Procurer,” the object of alternately gentle and snarling demands, a singular lack of gratitude, and abiding contempt: “that little b*****d / better deliver/ me f*****g flame-retardant/ flapdoodle another beer/ in f*****g skirts/ or I crush his f*****g/ smooch . . . ” (68). In the book under review, the writer identifies “a final, summative reconciling with the Procurer” in the following apostrophe: “but o my sissy-brother,/ there is nary the consumer/ absent the consumed” (69). The critic, to cite Paul de Man, is blind in his writing about the poetry to the insight that he identifies in their mutual autobiography: “Whether this mysterious Procurer will ever be brought fully from the shadows must wait on future Karvarkian collections. . .” (69).

How can someone engage in a repetition compulsion of assent to a victimization with both psychological and financial consequences (“I support forty-six ex-wives on the meager receipts of my modest critical efforts” [69]) by an exploiter of despicable character and dubious aesthetic gifts? The unreliable narrator provides only a partial explanation: after a while, he did not protest Karvarkian’s thefts because, each time it happened, “a new book. . . would appear,” and he would “greatly marvel at [Karvarkian’s] progression of intellect and technique from volume to volume” (67-8). Also, he feels satisfaction in what may be his personal contribution to that “progression”:

After all, he seemed to extract a tangible grace from the women I married—and, I flatter myself—possibly because of my own connection to them. I’d also like to think that my judiciously crafted critical prose, which my wives have assured me they read aloud to him each evening, helped to discipline his earlier poetic unruliness. (69)

This first-person narrator doesn’t see far. For one thing, he does not entertain the possibility that self-loathing may shape his actions and reactions. From a “Queer Theory” perspective, homosociality here supercedes the norms of heterosexual relations, or perhaps Karvarkian is the critic’s true beloved, and libidinal energy has been sublimated in textual commentary and masochistic submission to his subject’s whims. But a feminist reading seems subtler: what if the critic sees the poet’s brutal serial monogamy as advantageous for himself? And don’t the two share a sense of women as disposable objects? Anticipating Karvarkian’s continual return and the availability of more brides for himself, the reviewer knows that he never has to sustain an emotional commitment to any wife: “There then seemed to be an endless supply of wives in the Everglades, so I had no trouble marrying again” (67), and again and again. The critic can enjoy his marriages’ brevity and misogyny while making the poet the bad guy and making himself look like the good guy (who, after all, is both financially responsible to the ex-wives and critically responsible to his subject). He may relish watching each wife’s frailty in falling for Karvarkian and in gaining revenge on her when the latter loses interest. If the reviewer wanted any of his last 40 or so marriages to succeed, he could have changed critical subjects and could have moved where Karvarkian could not find him, but the “procurer” proves as addicted to repetition compulsion as his “client.”

Despite all these points, the critic’s resentment of his exploiter surfaces by the review’s end, even if he bumblingly misreads the poetry as elegantly (not crudely) minimalist: “I think, in the end, [Karvarkian’s poems] will share the fate of all delicately created things. Like Faberge eggs they will abide as objects that we can admire, but that, once having admired, we relegate to the collector’s shelf without further thought” (70). The discarder of women is finally discarded, but the critic does not see that his revenge is hollow. Since he spent a whole career writing on one forgettable poet, his own criticism will lose relevance.

In this review, I have emphasized prose-poetry, but most of the exuberant poems in part I, “from the Catalogue of Prohibited Musical Instruments,” the strong narrative collages of part III, “Excavated Triremes,” and the assortment of effective meditations and narratives in part V, “At the Funeral Home Bar,” are in well-tuned free verse.

Like McIntosh, two other significant contemporary American poets, David Shapiro and Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, turned 60 in 2007, and each published their first Selected Poems. We can hope for a Selected Poems from McIntosh in the not too distant future. I would venture to say that a large percentage of the work in Forty-Nine Guaranteed Ways to Escape Death will belong there, in part, because with each successive volume, the poet has gotten better and better at writing deadpan narratives like the Karvarkian review from which a great deal of complex, multivalent psychological speculation can be derived.

Thomas Fink's new book, Clarity and Other Poems. has recently been published by Marsh Hawk Press.

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