The “Concerning Craft” series introduces Little Patuxent Review contributors, showcases their work and draws back the curtain to reveal a little of what went into producing it.
Last I saw Greg McBride, he was giving a poetry reading at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD. Afterward, I asked him to take a head shot of me in the Center’s lobby. All I had with me was my first-generation iPhone, but I needed something fast for the Internet and he had, after all, been a war photographer accustomed to operating under adverse conditions. I’ve used the resulting image online ever since (see below). To return the favor, I snapped a photo of him that I’ve now posted here.
A Vietnam veteran and retired attorney, Greg turned to writing late in life. He authored Porthole, the winner of the 2012 Liam Rector First Book Prize for Poetry due out this spring, and the chapbook Back of the Envelope. He received a Boulevard emerging poet prize and a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in poetry. His work has appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Harvard Review Online, River Styx, Salmagundi and Southern Poetry Review. He is the founder and editor of The Innisfree Poetry Journal.
When I heard that one of his poems had been accepted for our Social Justice issue, I assumed that it was based on his Vietnam experience. Then I remembered that his work, in the words of one Back of the Envelope reviewer, addresses both military and domestic battlegrounds. So here is the poem and what he was kind enough to send me about how it came to be written:
All Went Well
A drainage hose snakes from the gaping hole
in his neck. A nurse steers his gurney.
Wincing, he waves, flashes a grin.
Everybody’s friend, always ready for a game,
he loves puns and kids, he’s liberal with clichés.
Even on his back, he’s combustible.
He goes well into the maw of 50-
50. I am unfazed: I have mastered
my father’s lessons in denial.
Hours trickle by.
Then the doctor’s in the corridor,
green scrub cap, surgical mask tendrilled
onto his chest.
All went well…
we began to suture, but
couldn’t stop the bleeding,
and we lost him.
The floor gives way. Light dust mattes its waxy sheen.
The doctor wears brown shoes. A broom bristles
toward me. A custodian, smooth dancer
on linoleum, keeps time pushing the push broom,
which chants and we lost him, and we lost him.
“All Went Well,” about my father’s sudden death at 66, was published the year that I arrived at that same age. A small man, though not as small as I, he had the large personality of the happy extrovert who was a lifelong player of games and lover of friends, American cars and home-improvement projects. And the US Army, where he entered a life unlikely for a high school graduate and WWII draftee from a tiny town in rural Idaho. He filled every room with energy, stories, good humor. His relentless optimism battled to a draw those forces determined to crush him over his last 25 years. And despite our mutual efforts, his death left unfinished business between us.
My records indicate that I began to work on the poem in 2007. When asked to write about its writing for LPR, I scrolled through the drafts and found that it had labored under five different titles; that it had acquired and discarded various epigraphs; that related events and characters appeared in early drafts, reappeared in others and were finally discarded; that the writing was discontinuous over the five-year period but persisted through 63 drafts. Here are the titles, from first to last:
News of My Father (1)
And We Lost Him (2)
All Went Well (56)
As with most of my poems, I tried to cleanse myself of intentionality–a particular form or even particular content. I wanted to open myself to whatever emerged from the complex of regret, anger and longing that welled within me.
What came was the consciousness of having, in the moment of his death, entered emotional territory quite distinct from that of quotidian life. My entire sensorium seemed adrift, more than slightly askew. Minor elements of the visual field—a glove on the floor, the doctor’s shoes–seemed somehow significant. As in Vietnam, I was a survivor dealing with the death of another. But upon my father’s death, I was shattered into shock beyond anything that I experienced there. I now see that my poem “Imperfect Metaphor,” which grapples with my mother’s death and appears in the current issue of River Styx, also dwells on immediate impact.
Where a poem takes the writer often depends on how it starts. Here are the opening lines used in drafting this poem, from first to last:
The surgeon led me to a hall
Family tourists, my sister / and I
We flew south again— / my sister and I
We fly south, again, my small son / and I
An old colonel, Dad sold new cars / in Florida
At the airport, a family friend: Your dad / is sick.
A disorienting heat undulates / from the runway
Heat disorients the air, which weaves
Your father’s in the hospital. I am / unfazed
Your father’s in the hospital, his friend says.
Nurses steer gurneys through the hallways.
He waves and wheels away, going well
A nurse steering his gurney, he waves
A drainage hose snaking from his neck
A drainage hose snakes from the gaping hole / in his neck
As you can see, I abandoned the past tense early on, realizing that immediacy was of the essence and demanded the present tense even though the event had occurred more than 20 years ago. Not an unusual decision but one that pressed itself with more force than usual. Early drafts were relatively long; over time, I felt the need to pare away as much scene-setting as possible. Although the world continues on around us in the wake of death, it is a world forever altered for the survivor and, in that moment, can be altered into unrecognizability.
Note: To learn more about how a poet presents the aging and death of parents, you might want to read one of the essays in my “On Being Invisible” series: “On Being Invisible: Our Elderly,” which features Christopher Kennedy. To learn more about how early drafts of poems evolve into final ones, you might want to take a look at one of my other “Concerning Craft” pieces, “Concerning Craft: Clarinda Harris.”