James McMichael

Winner of the 2003 Shelley Memorial Award

Above the Red Deep-Water Clays

             Capacity is both how
much a thing holds and how
much it can do. From a solid
magnetized and very hot core, the earth

suffers itself to be turned outside.
Closest to its heart are the deepest submarine
trenches and sinks. Its lava finds

clefts there in the old uplifted crust,
the ocean floor a scramble. Wrapping at depth huge

shield volcanoes, the North Atlantic

down- and upwells, its denser layers making
room behind them through the blue-green shortest
wavelengths of light. Inside the cubic
yards it levies, league by league, respiring,
budgeting its heat, it hides

its samenesses of composition through and through.
For the normal water level, an ideal

solitary wave is surplus. Any wave's
speed is what it is
only if reversing it would render it still.

Surfaces are almost without feature
at Sea Disturbance number one.
When the wind stretches them, their wrinkling gives it
more to hold onto. Three is

multiplying whitecaps.
Spray blows in well-marked streaks at six.
In the foam-spewed rolling swell that takes a
higher number, small and medium
ships may be lost to view for a long time.

Waves are additive. Doming

up on the tidal bulge into a storm's
barometric low,

the distances between them widen
as from the Iceland-Faroes massif
leeward for another
three hundred miles southeast
they build unblocked. Little

enough for them the first outlying gabbro
islets and stacks. These are not yet THE BRITISH
COUNTRYSIDE IN PICTURES, not yet the shoals
off Arran in the Firth of Clyde.

Heather McHugh and Michael Ryan on James McMichael

T.S. Eliot speaks of poetic accomplishment in terms of its intensity: "We expect to feel, with a great writer, that he had to write about the subject he took, and in that way." For Eliot, intensity is also a quality of the poem as a made thing, and the poet's personal emotions are only part of the material he or she works with: "It is not the 'greatness,' the intensity, of the emotions, the components, but the intensity of the artistic process, the pressure, so to speak, under which the fusion takes place, that counts."

This is the intensity that characterizes James McMichael's poetry. "The intensity of the artistic process" transfigures the intensity of the personal emotion. The discipline of the writing, the saving grace of writing itself, is not to change the hard facts, but to make them apprehensible. Nor do we ever doubt that the writer of James McMichael's poems had to write about his subjects in this way. His poetic enterprise has become increasingly to say what is. This has required a purity of intention which allows nothing to interfere with the sole purpose of showing his subjects clearly and gracefully, from every angle.

He has devised his own instruments for his own purposes. In his long-poems, unusual run-on lines accommodate his large and encompassing subjects and enact moment-to-moment feelings in intricate sonic-and-syntactical patterns and variations. He has resisted the conventional solution at every turn, and, in so doing over the course of thirty-five years of published work, he has actualized previously unknown possibilities for poetry.

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