Padma Thornlyre Reviews Desert Threnody by John Macker

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Padma Thornlyre Reviews

Desert Threnody

By John Macker

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John Macker has long been among my favorite living American poets and several of his titles—Woman of the Disturbed Earth, Underground Sky, and Disassembled Badlands—have confirmed that high regard. Desert Threnody is unique in his oeuvre in that it collects, not his poetry, but his literary essays, a short play, and short stories. It is a worthy read, displaying as it does a measure and range of the writer we have not seen before. My assignment of 4 stars instead of 5 reflects no real criticism of this fine work, but simply a perceived unevenness in the opening section, his Essays.

Macker does not concern himself with establishment writers; like other wordslingers I admire, he’s drawn more to the fringes than the commonplace. Indeed, his literary essays, which examine poets he has considered mentors and friends, do not address the “academy” but in a grand tradition more often associated with the visual arts, illuminate instead the outlaws and outsiders: Ed Dorn, Michael Ondaatje, Stuart Z. Perkoff, Kell Robertson, Tony Moffeit and Tony Scibella. Every essay is interesting, and his essays on Dorn and Moffeit are especially intriguing. Considering his acknowledged debt to Perkoff and his decades-long friendship with Scibella, I had expected more passion, but those expectations may have been projections of mine. Still, it is the weakest section in the book, but only because the essays are not as stylistically cohesive as the remainder of the book.

Section 2 is devoted to Macker’s marvelous short play, Coyote Acid, concerning an elderly woman in mental decline and her troubled son, recently released from the hoosegow and desperate for a hidden treasure he believes is buried somewhere on his mother’s land. Meticulously wrought, with Macker’s keen sense of the American language, every word rings true, and the ending does not disappoint—especially as I had anticipated a conclusion that I am delighted to say did not materialize.

The eight short stories composed in Section 3 made me wonder why John has not been writing fiction all along, for these are in no way tentative or pretentious, and in no instance does he bite off more than he can chew. Of course, as a poet who’s been published for the last 40 years, with well-established chops, he’s cut his teeth on a hard-edged duende that merges mysticism and injustice and exposes the grotesqueness that underlies American civilization. And don’t get me wrong, his poems are not polemics, but meditations—one could never accuse Macker of being a propagandist; in this regard, he reminds me most of the novelist Cormac McCarthy. Race, class, privilege are realities, but the real spotlight remains fixed on the human soul. The stories collected here are well-marinated in the lyrical integrity one expects of John Macker. His prose is flecked by his poetic sensibilities, like virga rain that evaporates mere feet from the parched soil, meaning that his stories, while not saturated by the incantatory power so vibrant and so defining in his poems, are yet driven by the same thirst, walking as they do through the harsh landscape of elemental forces that gather not only in the clouds but in the hearts of men. Of the eight stories gathered here, I am especially fond of “Diablo Canyon” and I open at random to this passage:

“The mankiller wind lashes itself to the landform smells of debauchery, extinction, his desert sizzles like a fuse; this is where the clouds break off from the distant humpbacked hills and float unambiguously towards Mexico. Each shape is an obscure species of shadow animal that drifts in rigorous silence high over the border; each cloud is shape-shifted with meticulous abandon by the volcanic breeze. Loco knows each of their Spanish names.”

John was raised on jazz and the blues, which explains somewhat the musical force propelling his prose. His vocabulary is vast and flawless. Enough said.

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Desert Threnody
Essays, Stories, One-Act Play
By John Macker
Carthage, MO.: Auxarczen Press, 2020
135 pages. ISBN #9798675661893

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About the Author: Padma Thornlyre, having spent most of his 61 years in Colorado, now lives in NE New Mexico with three feline females, surrounded by 5000 books, the art of his friends and, beyond his windows, mesas to the east, extinct volcanoes to the south, and the Rocky Mountains to the west and north. A confirmed Fire Giggler, he designs books for Turkey Buzzard Press and publishes the underground magazine, Mad Blood. His own titles include Eating Totem, Mavka: a poem in 50 parts, and The Anxiety Quartet (all poetry), and the unpublished novel, Baubo’s Beach, a braiding of dreams and other manifestations of the unconscious (no wonder he can’t find an agent!). He believes the writer, Linda Hogan, is right about most things; he tries to read Homer every other year and has exhausted the complete works of Nikos Kazantzakis, H.D., Amos Tutuola and Rikki Ducornet, but is still working on his collection of Ursula K. LeGuin.

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