A Mountain City of Toad Splendor by Megan McShea
A Mountain City of Toad Splendor by Megan McShea
Publishing Genius Press
Softcover, 98 pages
Megan McShea’s collection of prose poems, A Mountain City of Toad Splendor, is my literary equivalent to the road less traveled. My area of expertise is fiction (at least according to my PhD). Fiction is also my playground, the place I have the most fun, where things make sense even when they are trying hard not to make sense in order to challenge readers. So the variety of poetic styles within this book was new for me, but it also reminded me of the great feats poetry can achieve and the great fun to be had in the playground of a different genre.
The sense of play begins before even the title page and copyright and publication information. Lines that I would later find appearing in McShea’s poems appear here without context, each centered on its own individual page: “My quick lid sits fit/it hits,” “The blossoms crashed in on the milkweed,” and “We broke each other’s faces with rash gestures of affection,” are just a few examples. It’s an excellent technique for priming the reader. The first example displays skill with assonance, the second example’s image is dynamic, and the third example juxtaposes violence and affection, an image that feels like a broken mirror, showing us what’s familiar but in an unsettling and skewed way.
The two epigraphs that precede the poems in the book are also worth mentioning as they provide insight into McShea’s potential purpose. The first, from Kenneth Patchen’s early book self-published in 1941, is a dialogue that starts with the question “What makes you think anyone will understand that?” and ends with the answer that “I shall continue to ask How […] [t]o the strange, unborn thing which is in all men.” The question is one of what to do when faced with the incomprehensible, and the answer is to keep interrogating, keep searching within art or within language.
The second epigraph, from Yves Bonnefoy in an interview with Serge Gavronky, deals with the power of language and the need for writing. “Only one word needs to be discovered in order for a whole language to change,” goes the first line, and then finishes with “…[O]ne would not write were it not for this birth of words that gives again the hope of a true life.” This is heady stuff, and the three poets that McShea references with these two quotes are themselves brilliant trailblazers from the first half of the twentieth century. I had never heard of them until seeing them referenced here, but discovering their work has helped shed light on McShea’s book for its smart and dizzying effect, making them potent predecessors.
Like these great poets of the previous century, McShea is here to romance us and have fun, and so she must scaffold her craft and her skill behind beautiful veils that distort our gaze and quietly seduce us. The first poem, “The Brain is a Pleasure Organ,” provides long, rolling sentences of time and seasons that are like warm paths inviting us for a pleasant stroll. And yet this short line, “There it stands, like supper warmed her,” stands out by virtue of the odd simile, describing the presence through a feeling, a sensual experience that could be a memory or simply what we imagine. I personally recall leaning over a crock of stew in the winter, letting the heat radiate across my face, and that is what the presence described in the line is exactly like. The whole process of line reading, comprehension, and imagination is so pleasurable that the poem’s title feels perfectly chosen. The word “pleasure” features prominently again in “Soft Pure Pleasure,” where the question “How is it that this…?” appears three times in succession, echoing back to the Patchen quotation mentioned above.
The difficulty for me in reviewing this book stems from my own idiosyncratic reading of it. As a fan of metrical analysis, turning the poems over in my mind felt like unlocking some of the governing patterns, but I’ve no clue how to account for my particular “scansion.” I can tell you that some of these poems must be read aloud to be enjoyed. I received curious glances at work for sounding out the third part of “Large Swollen Things,” in which each line consists of long, unbroken strings of consonants and/or vowels, and in which each line begins with a letter from the title. I felt silly and self-conscious, but the act was pleasurable in that I was engaging with the poem in an additional way, sensually, with my mouth, larynx, and ears. The act of reading that portion aloud was very much in the moment, immediate, and memorable, and that is perhaps the whole point. Of course, when I read the “Notes” section at the end of the book, McShea explains that the same passage from “Large Swollen Things” came from groaning aloud as a method to get telemarketers to hang up on you. Her explanation is funny and irreverent and has absolutely nothing to do with my own experience because I enjoyed the birth of something wholly personal and different from what she describes. I think McShea would approve if I were completely certain that the “Notes” section wasn’t more prose poetry itself.
What is A Mountain City of Toad Splendor in summation? A collection of sensual moments and intellectual hide-and-seeks? A playground of sentence slides, metaphor tire-swings, and word jumble gyms? Is it the mental telegraphy of dreams or syntactical music? Only you can say for certain once you’ve read it, but for me it was unlike any other reading experience I’ve had, and that has made all the difference.