The Music of Coping — Bitter Acoustic by Sharon Fagan McDermott

Bitter Acoustic

Bitter Acoustic
BY Sharon Fagan McDermott
(Jacar Press, 2011)

In Bitter Acoustic Sharon Fagan McDermott sets out to create a poetic music designed to capture the nuances of moods. Her primary model is Lorca, his blend of sound and strangeness, and she not only succeeds in producing music akin to that master’s but also conjures moments that adopt an equally powerful quietness.

The book features a single speaker, a woman who has lost her male lover and is trying to cope with life in his absence. McDermott delves into the emotions of this situation by focusing on the environment of the heartbreak. The speaker moves through the turn-abouts of holding to the past while trying to move forward, and McDermott dramatizes this inner tumultuousness by focusing on the weather changes with the seasons, and the ways the landscape, the constructed environment and other people respond to those changes. In so doing, she does exactly what a poet should, which is to concretize emotions in tactile details, creating a vivid and dynamic portrait of both the inner and outer worlds the speaker occupies and makes.

McDermott is especially good when writing about snow. In her hands this material can be a symbolic element of cold loneliness, a merciful covering that can conceal a landscape marked by the past, a visitor that transforms vision and experience, and many more things. Perhaps the best poem in the book is “Against Unraveling,” and it includes the memorable opening lines:

Snow, again, unnaming everything
as though the tight lines
of an artist’s drawing had teased out
to spider’s threads and blown
away in the bluster….

— p. 15

The poem follows through on the speaker’s being alone on a snowy evening. Her dog, “his belly swirled with thick wool,” is her only company, his stomach reminding her of “the mossy thatch/of [her lover’s] stomach” (p. 15) she would kiss in the past. Watching her dog twitching in his sleep, she imagines he dreams of chasing some quarry through a graveyard, and this image leaders her to envision the metaphorical tombstone marking her dead relationship. The frigid conditions outside speak to her inner chill despite the peaceful heat inside her house; snow serves as a material of cold harshness but also as the reason for warmth and togetherness indoors, where memories both happy and sad mix.

Snow and a frozen landscape also serve McDermott well in working out the “bitter acoustic” — the music of loss and coping — she seeks to create. The sound of heartbreak is what she wants to generate, and the book’s opening poem literally sets the tone. Entitled “Icicle Suite,” it combines the same elements as “Against Unravelling” and lifts them to a high musical plane. Consider the following lines:

If I plucked these stalactites on the body
of this stucco wall, I’d play a memory
of splintering glass. A keening. A kettle’s shrill.

— p. 3

She later refers to “Ice pizzicato” and “such quaint staccato” (p.3), employing the clicking sounds of the words to evoke the craggy edges of icicles and the crunching sounds of things breaking. It is as if McDermott is “tape-recording a winter day in snow” (p. 11), as she writes in “Aftermath,” and it is the dirge of such a day that she wants her reader to feel as well as hear.

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