Wendy Cannella: Finding the Body:
on Laura McCullough’s Jersey Mercy
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
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
Tags: Contributors 94, Laura McCullough, Prose, Prose 94, Wendy Cannella