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.

Again, winter is not the only season McDermott explores, as the poem moves through the others in its dealing with remembering and forgiving, lingering, and moving on. She eschews the easy alignment of the warmer seasons bringing healing, although “July, Blue” does end with

…she half-dreams
and thinks, maybe, she can start over again. Finally,
she sleeps. The night, with its own life, unspools

— p. 37

These seasons carry their own music, from the cries of crows to the sound of rain in “Rain Faintly Falling,” which ushers the book to its close with a bittersweet memory of the speaker in bed with her lover while it is raining. Similar to this poem is “Lubricious” in which the speaker seems briefly united with her lover only to wind up separated forever.

One of the most effective poems in the book is not necessarily the most demonstrative. It is “Conversation, New Friends, 61-C Café,” and it well captures the sound and moods connected with making new acquaintances in the vacuum left by the loss of a lover. The conversation with these friends — a man and his girlfriend — is serious, with the man speaking of his dead mother and asking the question, “When do you know/that you’ve reached your true self?” (p. 12). No mindless chatter to take the speaker’s mind off sad things; yet the poem also shows the strength in moving on, even if not in a way that is simple and happy. Although this poem too begins with mention of snow and closes with “…Outside, sleet falls / slow-motion like pins from her hand” (p. 12), this poem does not so much ponder the season or foreground musical elements as many of the others do. Rather, there is a quietness here, an evocation of atmosphere that succeeds on an emotional level. The details are not overwhelmingly riveting, but the evocative power of the piece is, particularly as situated among the other poems in this book.

…the entire book must negotiate the same challenge of dealing with the much written-on subject of rejection and loss in a compelling way. Happily, it succeeds.

Bitter Acoustic is especially impressive in light of the level of risk that comes with taking on so common a topic. If mishandled, writing about such heartbreak could sound like a rage that, while universal enough, fails as fresh, creative poetry. There are a very few moments when McDermott’s poetry could be mistaken for lesser work, most conspicuously in “Sonnet: Not Yet Forgiving.” At one point in the poem the speaker cries “Make your own bed; lie / now to a new fool” (p. 19), and McDermott does not set these clichéd lines apart as an utterance different from the otherwise strong poetic diction of the rest of the piece (she puts a similar line of presumed dialogue in italics earlier in the poem). With a careful reading, however, one can see that she says this in the role of heartbroken lover instead of as poet, that her placement of the word “lie” propels the first cliché forward to the next one in a smart way full of genuine emotional charge. The move can be read as an extension of the poem’s overall flirting with convention, as it follows prescribed sonnet form while breaking certain rules of that form. This blurring of formal lines can be seen as paralleling the blurring of lover versus poet roles. In a sense, the entire book must negotiate the same challenge of dealing with the much written-on subject of rejection and loss in a compelling way. Happily, it succeeds.

It is hard to imagine any sentient being finding this volume anything less than a statement of something integral. The speaker of the poetry can be you, me. The poems sing to the spine, the stomach, the hand, the ear. In their most musical modes, their language grows more experimental, but the point at which the poetry’s edge scrapes at least this reader’s emotional bone comes when the diction and forms step away from sounds and metaphors and there emerges the expression of a person making the self out of pain unadorned. These latter moments give body and power to the music itself, tuning and bending acoustics to form that bitterness.

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