GHOST GEAR, poems by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum, a 2014 finalist for the Miller Williams, Arkansas Poetry Prize, is a strong read. With great attention to word choice, image, detail and cadence, McFadyen weaves stories his father told him of his life with McFadyen’s own boyhood.
The first poem in the book, SINGING, reads like a song. Such rhythm in a series of images – spider webs, horseflies, slugs – followed by a pithy “We are creatures all.” Such music in “The wind, if you watch, is calligraphy; the stars in winter,/ a weightlessness.” And repetition that strives for more than emphasis – “Stepping across these thresholds/ I step across these thresholds. Singing, I sing.”
Likewise, SACRAMENT is full of lovely turns of phrase like “a fog blossoms,“ ”a snicker of sunlight,“ his sister “curled beneath [his] crib like a nautilus,” and what his sister tells him – “Child, fear not, harsh truths/ are first translated into whispers.”
The poem, entitled GHOST GEAR, deserves to be the title of the book, recounting the story his father told and retold about nearly drowning in a tidal wave. At the time, the poet and his sister “were nothing back then but a notion/ when my father could hold his breath/ for over a minute.” In the face of certain death, McFadyen’s father did not review his life, ask for forgiveness, no. He “gives his marrow to those ropes,/ he weaves himself into those moorings.” McFadyen writes that “only once I asked my father why he chose out there to live,” and his father answered that he heard a voice ask, ”Are you a father?” to which his father replied, “Yes.”
In EVER-CHAMBER, McFadyen recounts another of his father’s stories. His father’s mother warned him about the cottonmouths coiled in the Louisiana swamps, and he encountered one and macheted it to death, saving himself. We find ourselves in two time frames – when this happened, and when McFadyen’s father tells him about it years later. And within these frames, his father sees the future – his draft card “a declaration of flame in his grasp,” and images of when McFadyen’s sister would run away and his father’s search for her, “fearful he’s lost her.“
McFadyen and his father survive the flooding in a cave in LOST CREEK CAVE. This was his father’s “second near death by water.” His father’s creed is this – ”Why this life not a life without death’s clang/ from time to time between the ears?”
With a father like this, it is little wonder that the father appears even in the poems about McFadyen’s own growing up. THE WORD DAMN AND THE WORD GOD is a disturbing, powerfully written poem about McFadyen’s friend, Chris. There is the hint of cruelty in Chris’ father pouring gasoline on an ant hill, and Chris screaming “at each strike of his father’s leather.” In contrast, when McFadyen’s father told him he could not play with Chris anymore, and McFadyen said, “But Chris is all I have ”– his father cried.
The poet does not flinch from the disturbing. For instance, he writes that Chris ”liked to strum the testicles of his pit bull Rex,” and Rex licked McFadyen’s foot when he stepped on a nail. Whether or not biographical or strictly true, it seems from the poem that Chris’ father killed him with a filthy boning knife. “Rex outside howling.” And McFadyen’s response when he hears of this? “Goddamns to all the dogs too weak/ to loose their chains,” and a wish that he could “get down with the grit/ and linoleum and patch that rift of skin with [his] tongue.”
In STORMDRAINING, McFadyen and two friends search for “any indication of where beneath our world we were.” It is almost a foregone conclusion that McFadyen’s friends, who used the word "Nigger," would leave him hanging from a high grate until he finally let go and “there was the calm that came.” And in DRIVING INTO THE CUMBERLAND, McFadyen recounts “the unknowing of sixteen years” – driving a car off a promontory, swimming back to shore, alive and breathing, and his friend saying, ”Look, it’s the world. We’re finally seeing the world.”
These poems are just a handful in a book that is a treasury of story, of narrative. McFadyen knows how to tell a story – after all, he had a great teacher.