The Napkin Manuscripts
By Michael McFee
University of Tennessee Press, 207 pp.
Here's a compliment North Carolina poet Michael McFee might very well reject: Over the course of a 30-year career, his poems have found the universal in the particular.
That's not exactly wrong, but you could give the same praise to most enduring art, which is why it's a vague, lazy cliché. And in McFee's case, it reduces his precise, almost tactile verse to a midden of dead and bloated abstractions: love, death, nature, humanity.
It's more mundane and less eulogistic, but perhaps truer, to say that McFee finds the particular in the particular. His artisanal diligence and modesty, and his unguarded affection for his surroundings, enable him to gaze long and deep at each thing—an ice cube, a shinebox, a pocket watch—until it "huddles there, alive and resting" (as the poet John Ashbery observed, lucidly, of his labor's effect on his subjects). Then it reveals to McFee, and he to the reader, its quiddity and its affective power: a power that, like those of heritage and blood, is both immediate and memorial. (Some of McFee's best poetry comes from his old family photographs.) If, as William Carlos Williams insisted, there are "no ideas but in things," then McFee's earthly, sanguine poems—they may be too earthly and sanguine for some tastes—are outbursting with ideas. The best of them are like shapely stone fruit picked at perfect ripeness.
So don't expect a conceptual Aesthetics or Manifesto from McFee's first book of essays. (McFee on Poe's aridly discursive "Philosophy of Composition": "Yeah, right.") The Napkin Manuscripts is, as its title suggests, not a treatise but a loose stack of thoughts, many originally jotted on Hardee's napkins—"though McDonald's are okay," McFee allows—in a tick of inspiration. Yet taken as a whole, this unassuming, colloquial book gives the basics of McFeeism—although he'd rather you glean his Poetics by reading his poems.
The Napkin Manuscripts is essentially tripartite: The first section considers what it means to be a North Carolina poet; the second delves into McFee's writing process and his career as a poet and professor at UNC, culminating in the titular essay, a couple of fistfuls of notes that sketch a homespun Poetics; the third comprises six panegyrics to fellow North Carolina poets. A short, appendicular fourth section transcribes a 2002 interview McFee gave to his friend and UNC colleague, poet Michael Chitwood.
It's easy to mistrust the book's first part, since the notion of "Southern literature" is often overblown, hoary and self-mythologizing. The novelist Walker Percy (a UNC alum) grew so tired of the subject that he finally refused to address it. McFee, who is from Asheville and has lived for years in what he aptly calls "dear dirty Durham" (hereby nominated as the city's official slogan), is not so reluctant. He writes lovingly of the blue mountains of his childhood. But in "Nothing to Me" he confesses his own skepticism, even indifference, toward Caroliniana. His visit to Bennett Place, the bleak Civil War site in West Durham, summons no native pride: "I was foolish to expect some sort of Dixie epiphany," he admits; then, wandering around the memorial, starts "scrawling notes for a poem about the Confederate flag" (natch—and on a Hardee's napkin, one imagines). Instead, McFee feeds his inner Tar Heel just a few miles east of Bennett Place on Hillsborough Road, at a site more fittingly carnal: Bullock's BBQ. After a bowl of their Brunswick stew, he feels "happier in my soul and gut than almost anywhere in the world, and much more at home than on any Civil War battlefield."
A book by a poet about poetry should, above all, excite readers about poems, and that's what The Napkin Manuscripts does best. In "By Heart," McFee recounts his monthly meetings with a lawyer friend (a lapsed English major) who wanted to learn and recite great poetry. Over the course of 18 months, McFee heard his friend speak almost 2,000 lines of memorized verse, some of which McFee quotes in appreciation: Donne, Shakespeare, Hopkins, Stevens. McFee's enthusiasm is dual: He's not only a loyal, fluent audience for his friend's quixotic but strenuous literary sport, but also a generous pro bono advocate for the case of poetry.
"By Heart" serves as a preamble to the book's meaty, potent third section. In it, McFee does career retrospectives and close, loving readings of several North Carolina poets, including our last two Laureates, Kathryn Stripling Byer and Fred Chappell. Along the way, he argues equably (but strongly) for his compatriots' literary importance. Whether or not you agree, McFee makes you want to go read these writers—right now—and seek what he finds in their work: the ardor, patience and craft in every foot and vowel of the best poetry. His comparative reading of A.R. Ammons's "The Yucca Moth" and Robert Frost's "Design" is exemplary: alert, erudite, limpid, agile and persuasive.
Despite The Napkin Manuscripts' humble fast-food origins, it may provide better and longer sustenance than its title suggests and, perhaps, than its author intends. Most writers hide behind what Henry James famously called "the madness of art," but this book reveals its restorative sanity, which cures the madness into verse. Only an artist can bring you this close to art's habitat, and only the rare one will. Critics, even if we manage to retract the talon of judgment (Good or bad? Consume it or not?), seek theme, context, history—in short, the universal—which is seldom the artist's motive. No matter our experience or admiration, the critic's disposition tends to be vulturine: either circling above, keen-eyed perhaps but thick-skinned and distant, or else so hungry to digest art that we eviscerate it. In his best essays, McFee not only puts you at ground level with poetry, he lets you see his particular poetry through the eyes of the poet, and the world through the eyes of the poem.