Part empathy, part ferocity in subject and voice, a living, breathing language bobs along like an electric jellyfish —fearless, vital, often urban in the poems in McCullough’s new collection Jersey Mercy. Immersed in various tensions—the sort that McCullough has been teasing out for a decade— these poems seem to be uttered aloud as they unfold. Language meets longing, hardship wrangles transcendence—these poems get their krump on at the boardwalk, track wins inside losses, locate ruins and wounds as sites of experience to push against and pick at. At the heart of the collection lies the wish of the body: the drive for survival and sometimes for self-destruction, the often futile but endlessly necessary act of extending protection to the lost and endangered (humans, yes, and broadly, all forms of life that saunter into the book’s field of vision), for the sanctity of the individual, for stealing what pleasure one can, for love. The book is organized in four interlocking sections that function as a black box of experience, a voicing from the heart of the storm. Each draws its concerns from the poet’s geographic locale and the people that populate it. How community shines amidst ruins is a major theme. Here, as in earlier collections, the poems leap out in a kind of mania of concern, tracking the boys who have thrown themselves in front of trains— “What can I trade to make such things impossible?” It is the kind of imagined trade dreamt in “Bartering and the Myth of Shells,” a complicated portrait of danger and the body’s resulting impulses that appeared in Panic (2011). In many ways, Panic operates as Jersey Mercy’s sister collection. In both volumes the pressures of the poem are the pressures of the world, driving bodies to extreme modes of communication. This is a poet working as hard to render New Jersey as Robert Frost did to capture the local speech and babbling brooks of New Hampshire, or as William Carlos Williams did in Paterson, one of McCullough’s literary inheritances. Such lineage is not lost in Jersey Mercy, where despite difficulties and estrangements, the reader finds a Williams-esque optimism at the heart of things, a broken beauty in the world. If only that broken beauty could save the lost. Against the backdrop of suicide in this “down and afraid” town, the reader meets Mercy for the first time. She glows in all of her Jersey glory, “spitting seeds outside the porta potty” beside the 7-11, sporting her social security number as a neck tattoo: “In case they find / my body.” Mercy is a survivor. One might be tempted to claim her as the iconic Jersey girl. She is at home outside of the convenience store, so near yet so far from the glittering Atlantic which is “just a few blocks away,” and “the train track is out back.” Walking the line between natural beauty and rough urbanity, Mercy lives in her skin, exudes the irrepressible joy of the body. Mercy is the embodiment of McCullough’s long-served fiery poetic, which rises at least in part from her own biography. At Mercy’s (also McCullough’s) first job at McDonald’s, the reader witnesses an intimate moment of small, sweet rebellion. Here is Mercy as she: licks hot fudge when she refills the machine— Fuck you, she thinks—uses her tongue, rim ragged and round, she stays just inside the metal groove, doesn’t make a sound, looks around; knows some would call this stealing, but it’s sweeter off the jagged lid; Never been cut, she thinks, Never will. At Mercy’s core is love of pleasure and of the body’s desires, presented with attitude and swagger. The fever of the Mercy poems comes from within, generating heat through the idiom and the scene, through Mercy’s shaking and twerking. While the diction of the book’s first section is that of modern Jersey, of the street, the emphasis is not unlike what William Carlos Williams seeks in Paterson, the whole hot flood of the world’s language burning through the poet’s mouth. In “Mercy Gets Her Krump On in Atlantic City and Shows Some Boys How to Dance Like a Girl” the reader gets a front row seat on the boardwalk next to Tommy 2 AC Clown, who “pops his ass down”: on the boards says, Show me what you got. Mercy says, You think you know, then does her show, going diss and sick: bully, beasty, cocky. All flash, no goof, not yet; Mid East pop in her iPod, power jerks and rugged, she mugs a face, has learned grace is thought weak, ends in pose, says, You so white, without irony, wishing she weren’t. The poem’s staccato beats power jerk along to Mercy’s anatomical showmanship. McCullough recognizes this is a dance of life, the body asserting itself in place and time, the language in sync with the moves, going “diss and sick,” matching the “flash,” harnessing the beats of the “Mid East pop” heard only by Mercy herself; Headphones become amulets that pump song into the modern world, their secret music privately pressing its way into the body. Through these earbuds and headphones, McCullough names the ears as the new windows to the soul. Here in “Mercy Gets Her Krump On…” the music of the poem, like most of the pieces in the first section, comes at us jab-jab-punch. The external bravado of the language and of Mercy’s demonstration, as much an escape as an expression, gives way to what’s real, gets to the root of the body’s desire: She is grimy and sweaty from her snaking and shaking and quaking and twerking, feeling free right now from fear, loving to be near what makes her feel alive. When she gets the bus home, the mile-markers on the Garden State Parkway clicking by out her window look like the ruler she will refuse to be beaten with, and she’ll calculate the days until she can go again to, Show them how it’s done. McCullough’s guiding artistic power is her ability to tap the empathic nerve. It was Marge Piercy who wrote that life is the first gift, love is the second, and understanding, the third. Jersey Mercy tracks such a trajectory, a path that leads not to redemption, not to grace, but to a deep physical knowledge of the various worlds that exist within the one and only State of New Jersey. It is in the book’s second part, “The Depths,” where the poems submerge themselves in language and idea. When the ocean rises up to cover homes, land, bodies, the landscape changes, the community finds itself damaged and displaced in new ways as in the section’s title poem: Species intermingled, like Asbury Park, all that respiration and concrete, rock formations for people, hiding in all the crevices, and much of life simply moderate, not much doing, equable and even, the young especially unsatisfied by this, the far-off dying coral just too far off, an hypothesis at best: Pierce me; pierce me; let this fierce life take me someplace else. In the Shore town of Asbury Park, the land of Springsteen and boardwalk shops, McCullough locates a coral reef. The unlikely metaphor casts what transformation it can, gives an assist in perspective, functions in a way not unlike Williams’ Paterson to identify the radiant gist, the core of the place. The problem of self-destruction rears up anyway and what is lifted into the light is the language of the body—the wish for release, escape, transcendence, and, ultimately, the heartrending problem of young men jumping in front of trains. The poet wades through the aftermath of Sandy, collecting the voices from a world both mournful “only yarrow grows / in my destructed / yard” (“What They Thought About the Water”) and resolute “we die from so many things / but don’t stop us wanting to live near water” (“Peoples Love They Animals”). The broken world still offers up its glimpses of beauty, and “beauty / is an experience so overwhelming, we sometimes never / recover” alleges the speaker of “Love Alone,” who understands that to experience beauty is also a form of being pierced. “Show me,” the speaker pleads, “your beauty, I want / to say. Show me how you made this mask, the lichen, twigs, / the long tended griefs.” The wish to know intimately these long tended griefs, to stay in the broken world, provides the antidote to the suicide’s wish to be taken. It is the wish to stay present in the hurt of the world and to recognize the glory of it, to locate the body, alive and breathing and aching. “The Depths” closes with “The Plural of Apocalypse” which celebrates “a communion of gorgeous sorrows, / our reenactment of the ever falling world.” To be with the world, to stay in the disaster of it, to reenact the old tragedy, to step barefoot into reality, as Stevens would have it, is the ambition of the first half of Jersey Mercy. From these desperate depths of the cold subterranean world rises up the hot-blooded horse of the book’s third section Horses & Other Beings. While the poems have been thus far commandeered by Mercy’s strutting ipod technopop, the author arrives in this section as though suddenly materialized. She appears atop a beast almost mythical in its carnality and power. “And we go,” McCullough commands, but “should we go? This steed and me? Yes, let’s go.” It is worth wondering over the hesitation. The strong personas of McCullough’s work seem to erode here as the speaker defers to the physical world of the animal. In “Along the Wrack Line” the wistful speaker appears in stark contrast to the strong, ignorant brute wandering past the destruction of the storm: The horse doesn’t care what is deposited there: albums of families displaced by storms; marine Styrofoam floats; telephone poles in parts, split, waterlogged, sorry and silent. Recognizing the horse’s beautifully oblivious bulk, its cantering which ‘misses everything,’ the speaker embarks on the unsure claiming of her own body: […] calves against ribs, feet so happy to simply hang, the heels in charge, the throbbing of the horse heart, horse-lung thrum coming through the callouses to make my ankles into bells. And I watch for what the wrack line gives up. The destructed, worn down, pulverized. My horse bears me above it. The horse’s power offers a vision of a best self who operates outside of nostalgia and fear. “If only my own spine,” the speaker yearns, “could hold such a woman, and hold her with such / strength. What would I not be capable of then?” The speaker’s willingness to appear, to question, to become increasingly vulnerable, works against the brutal certainties of Jersey Mercy. She appears in moments of glaring clarity, revealing herself on the beach, “with eyes closed, glasses off, on a late / summer day, not wanting to let go.” But boardwalk reality grows shaky in these poems where the speaker moves in and out of her body, sees a pearl dissolve in vinegar, a spider conjure a flamenco guitar player, a woman transform into a cormorant. The horses themselves begin to shift from their carnal imprints into dream selves into racing horses drugged to prevent their lungs from drowning in the seaside air into the muscular horse of the speaker’s tongue into the wooden carousel horses of the boardwalk—so that the entire section functions as a meditation on the symbolic form of the horse until at last the poem “Empathy” appears. In that last poem of the section the glorious, impervious horse achieves its ideal form in the driving, anapestic rhythms of the line, the audible hoofprints of the mind, final connection between beast and poet: hear the lost, cheering hoofs in the mud drumming wet and not quite wild. Throughout Funtown, Mercy’s yearnings begin to merge with the speaker’s. They share the desire for the same places, places hated, broken, even beautiful in their drabness—places where “even the dull sand seems / to shimmer today.” The landscape fills with beloved strangers. A child plays in crumbling concrete at the beach while his father snubs out a cigarette in the sand. Tino’s on the boardwalk playing the drums. “It’s him. I’d know that paradiddle and flam anywhere.” These are places that succumb to flood, to fire, where even restoration destroys—a rebuilt pier “takes out twenty stores.” These are places where a life might be measured in glimpses of Bruce Springsteen, which may very well be a glimpse of the godly, where the Temple of Knowledge is the home of a fortune-teller named Madam Marie and where Mercy dances among the residents of the Jersey Shore, to the droning techno music emanating from the Empress. Ultimately Jersey Mercy is a book of scars. McCullough marvels at such unlikely healing and at the no less miraculous softening of grief, which arrives as a communal delusion, part wish, part necessity: We were almost back to living as if the ocean isn’t right here next to us, slumbering, as if we might go on better than we were, as if we are like everyone everywhere.