A review of Stopgap Grace by Neil McCarthy

Reviewed by Nina Murray

Stopgap Grace
by Neil McCarthy
Salmon Poetry
ISBN: 978-1-912561-07-0, 78pages, Feb 3, 2018

Sophronia Scott’s far-reaching idea that “The language of beholding is the language of faith” finds its perfect expression in Neil McCarthy collection. About half-way through the book, one line‒ “I note the moment and walk on” ‒delivers the ars poetica of this book. The title Stopgap Grace, for this reader, describes both individual poems and the collection as a whole: the individual pieces articulate moments moments of connection and insight suspended from the much larger flow of sentiment and thought that otherwise propels the speaker, and the book as a whole feels like a respite from a much larger job the writer must undertake, like a break of floating on the waves and admiring the clouds and the flotsam in the middle of a marathon swim.

The poems are dense, lusty in the old sense of the word—in their intentness on the uniqueness of each contemplated experience. McCarthy’s metaphors are fresh and lovely; line-by-line, the writing is often astonishingly beautiful. Occasionally, it appears to be making a little fun of itself:

We took turns in seeing who could find the closest
depiction of how the black and purple clouds
clung to the rooftops above us, and I think you won
with something like ‘quilted’.

As the speaker and his traveling companion and lover traverse Europe in the first half of the book, his imagination supplies Hollywood-style masques—Holly Golightly, “Orson Welles skulking in the shadows”, “Sunset Boulevard from this angle / looks more / like a fallen Christmas tree”—because, we begin to intuit, they come with narratives, tales of escape and defiance, that fill a need in the speaker’s heart. Motion—across Europe, along streets, up and down staircases, into dreams and out into the oblivion of love-making—for him is a stopgap grace, a substitute for a negotiation for peace with oneself.

The opening poem of section III, “Do not compare the darkness,” gives what feels like the first insight into the speaker’s point of no return, both figurative and literal when the speaker addresses his father:

Tonight I am writing for you the largesse
of the lane upon the very steps that my god
treads.
<…>
If you were Daedalus back then, then I was
your creation: both son and labyrinth from
which you would not escape.

Having spoken those lines, the speaker retreats again into worldliness, but the gears of his geography-treading catch on memories, casual encounters he cannot shake, hauntings.

This leads him to say, eventually, and then to repeat, “exile is but a narcissistic luxury.” The homeland is still there, “a clumsy emissary,/crashing like a brass band down a stairwell,” and by the end of the book, there is no more hiding from it, so out comes the last, anthemic, lament:

Dear island, dear battered rock:
Do you remember me at all?
Until now I have addressed you with grace,
leaned favorably towards and recant of your devilment,
regaled five continents with cliches of your valour.
Until now, this has been about me:
about the dead I never buried, the Band-Aid metaphors,
the narcissism of my exile.

It is the essence of grace to be unearned, and at the end of this collection, the reader knows that it is the unearned, unanticipated grace—not the summoned, prayed for, traveled for kind–that allows McCarthy’s speaker to face the dead who sent him wandering the labyrinth of his own self.

About the reviewer: Nina Murray is a Ukrainian-born American poet and translator. Her debut collection of poetry, Minimize Considered, was published by Finishing Line Press. Her newest collection is Alcestis in the Underworld, published by Circling Rivers press.

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