When I shared a poem from Scared Violent Like Horses to a friend who has extensively traveled the United States, she immediately placed the setting. There are thirty-six townships named Springfield in the United States, but the imagery in Scared Violent Like Horses is distinctive enough to render the town of John McCarthy’s youth recognizable. This sophomore collection of poetry— winner of the Jake Adam York Prize and published by Milkweed in March 2019— combines a vivid and often-exquisite depiction of the midwestern landscape with the trauma of poverty, abandonment, and coming of age.
Consider the opening poem, “Switchgrass.” Within the sway of switchgrass, torrential rain, and the smell of hay, an innocent seeks refuge:
This is the year of this is never over. It’s raining
and it will not stop raining. Outside Springfield,
roads move like spilled water. Silos of dirt and rust
surround the bones of barn lofts with shingles shucked
like broken stalks. Crabapple trees lose their fruit
and fall from rot into wild clover. In the straight lines
of cut lawns— the hay-thick sent of Illinois.
Plowed hillsides pierced buy stencil signs beg me
to pray to God. The switchgrass bends to the shoulder
of the road, pushing the wind through the gravel.
The switchgrass sways and sways. It will not stop swaying.
I’m floating away from home. I’m becoming a prayer
I never said for myself. There is smolder and silence
when my pickup truck goes quiet and smoke rises
from the engine. Parked slanted on the road’s shoulder,
it takes a few tries with wet fingers to prop the hood.
A mangled cat mats the crankshaft and fan belt,
fur-shredded and soaked. He must have wanted
warmth from the storm when my truck was a box
of rust resting crooked on my lawn, miles ago.
His black eyes are rolled back. His tongue is out
and his throat is ripped open, exposing muscle.
I never even heard his scream, piston-stretched
and hot. I want to shake him back to life,
but I feel so far away. It’s raining and it will not stop
raining. Switchgrass quivers in every direction.
It’s raining, and I don’t have anywhere to leave.
“Switchgrass,” albeit more violent than the rest of the collection, establishes one of the text’s dominant themes: in “flyover” country, time slows. There is little variety, which results in a kind of existential limbo— the protagonist has “nowhere to leave,” and therefore nowhere to return, which is a contemporary American ailment. Although the reasons in the Midwest may differ from the Bay Area where I live, the feeling is familiar. In California, my hometown has changed so much I don’t recognize it, while in McCarthy’s landscape the monotony creates a disparate—although recognizable— brand of displacement.
The sense of endlessness in this prologue poem is achieved partly through the hypnotic diction. A form of the word “rain” appears five times, “switchgrass” four times including the title, “sway,” three times, and “rust” twice. This is a landscape with dreamy movement, constant rain, and monuments to an industrial and agricultural past. In the end, the switchgrass ceases swaying and “quivers,” upping the stakes. Within this dreamworld, the cat— a surrogate for the speaker—”…wanted/warmth from the storm when my truck was a box/of rust resting crooked on my lawn, miles ago.” The decayed symbols of the region’s anachronistic commerce are mistaken for refuge.
Typically, diction in “Switchgrass” refers to Christian motifs, which suggests a narrative the speaker does not embrace but nevertheless recognizes as a possible paradigm for existential survival, not personally utilitarian, but an indication the mind can construct its own reality: “Plowed hillsides pierced by stencil signs beg me/to pray to God. The switchgrass bends to the shoulder.” Although the speaker does not respond to the sign, the grass kneels. Later, in a somewhat redemptive moment, the narrator finds a spiritual locus: “I’m becoming a prayer/ I never said for myself.” The ending is a dark lyric moment. Time and place are distorted as the speaker absorbs tragedy. How can one leave a place that feels so apart from time’s progress? “It’s raining, and I don’t have anywhere to leave.”
The rest of the pieces in Scared Violent Like Horses are likewise clear-eyed and powerful, adhering to themes suggested in “Switchgrass.” The book is further crafted by its arc: roughly chronological, with the first section depicting the speaker as a child. The middle section— called “Flyover Country” like the middle of the US— is a meditation on the particularities of time in the prairielands, while providing a context for the other two sections on either side. The final section deals with adolescent and young-adult trials as they relate to the characteristics of place.
Furthermore, a series of self-portraits provides a recurrent thread. The self-portrait pieces portray the dissociation engendered by trauma. In each self-portrait, the speaker becomes an inanimate object— a baseball or bicycle, for example— and describes himself from a dissociated point of view. Also threading the text are five poems dedicated to the Northend neighborhood of Springfield. The first poem of the Northend series, “Northend 1,” portrays the speaker as a young boy riding an old-fashioned supermarket carousel horse.
Softening into dark gray, the silver layer of evening folds over
the old two- quarter carousel horse I’m riding outside the IGA corner store.
My grandmother is inside
buying lottery tickets with her savings.
I’m gripping the white handles
bolted to the horse’s brayed face. Kicked open, the sculpting of the stomach
is caverned, the edges of a pink cast metal frame fractured white.
I wonder if I’m small enough to curl up inside, vanish.
on the horse, and I wish my mother were here, taking my picture
with a disposable camera,
but I’m the yellow humming
of a corner store doorway. I dismount the horse,
and the empty parking lot watches.
Dark garbage stuff the horse’s stomach—
cigarette wrappers, plastic pop bottles, wet receipts,
and I scrape out its metal body. It feels like biting the tongues of a fork
when my nails scrape its metal cast.
there are dead insects, too, and I feel like dead insects.
I stick my head into the hollow of his stomach. That’s all that fits.
In the dark,
I hear my grandmother call me A gross thing. Get out, she says.
She won twenty dollars from a scratch-off
but only has five left to show. When she hands me two loose quarters
from the bottom of her bingo bag,
I climb up the horses mechanical canter.
She lights a cigarette and waves smoke away like swatting flies,
and I think of the horses caverned body,
how comfortable it would be to live inside.
It is easy to compare the narrator here to the cat of the first poem. In this case, the profound desire for refuge is psychological and elegantly revealed— the child is alone, the “grandmother is inside/buying lottery tickets with her savings.” The boy yearns for his mother’s approbation as he rides a broken horse. Only the parking lot watches him. As is often the case in these poems, the redemptive action takes place within the narrator’s imagination, which continually edifies his personality and seeks escape. He wonders “how comfortable it would be to live inside.” This is an innocent’s ars poetica— the child wishing to excavate an inner world, the adults cursing him for it, the relentless creative mind ends the poem with its inquiry.
The middle section of the book comprises one long poem “Flyover Country,” which is divided into shorter numbered sections with titles in brackets. “Flyover Country” continues the themes of trauma and landscape, with an emphasis on the vagaries of time in the flatlands of Illinois. “VII. [Renders and Yields]” depicts an emptiness, time is paused, life waits to occur:
When the speck of dirt sings from its fallow field abandoned
by harvest and covered with frost, a boredom emerges in that cold time,
and patience is tried. It’s like watching an icicle melt, drop by drop,
from a gutter only to freeze again on the old porch
black from the fall’s unswept leaf rot. I have spent lifetimes inside
watching a house being dismantled and rebuilt out of sunlight
and freezing temperatures, but this is how I learned patience,
how to control my burning, the way switchgrass looks
like a scalp of hair on fire nodding back and forth in the wind...
The elegant opening line with its “fallow field abandoned/ by harvest and covered with frost” echoes the earlier lament of “I have nowhere to leave.” How does a region maintain a sense of purpose— identity, the purchase and patterns of industry— if it is fallow? What becomes of people in such a setting? One answer: they learn patience.
In another “Flyover poem,” “II [Of Motherhood, a Fierce Drowning]” the sameness is literally maddening:
The incessant silence of the central Midwest drove my mother mad.
Between the gaps of noise, the undulating wind passed like public trains
between the rows of terraced houses in crowded cities. There was no peace
To not move like that means to measure dust by the buckets of light
casting shadows on the wall each day until an invisible voice seizes
the skull and a landscape of zoysia invades the soft ground— infertile seeds
of motherhood and identity....
Despite the trauma pervading this book, it is full of empathy for the characters and a deep appreciation of the landscape. The mother above, for example, is seen with compassion, and the detailed descriptions of the midwestern world— although an irritant— bring a measure of beauty to every scene. For example, “buckets of light/casting shadows on the wall” is by no means an ugly image. It is what follows— “each day,” an unevolving and unnerving monotony, where the mind is carpeted with invasive “zoysia,” covering the “soft ground.” In nearly every poem, there is some compelling depiction of the natural world, even if it is brief and contrasted with a dark event. In this way, the land maintains a separate identity, its own time and power, as if whatever happens to the people, the land continues its incomprehensible history.
I found Scared Violent Like Horses while browsing at Powell’s books in Portland, Oregon. I was in search of a collection of poems that would swallow me like a novel, carry me to the timeless dimension of literature. In other words, to be my balm in this fractured twenty-first century landscape. This book deeply satisfies. I found it by chance in the stacks— its dramatic cover with a red tornado slicing through a plain, suburban-looking home. Direct from the heartland, John McCarthy speaks to all of us in a compassionate, whip-smart American voice.
Dion O’Reilly has lived most of her life on a small farm in the Santa Cruz Mountains. She studied with Ellen Bass and Danusha Laméris and received her MFA from Pacific University. Her first book, Ghost Dogs, will be published in spring 2020. Her poetry appears or is forthcoming in The Massachusetts Review, New Letters, Sugar House Review, Rattle, The Sun, Bellingham Review, Atlanta Review, Catamaran, SWWIM, and other literary journals and anthologies. Her work has been nominated for Pushcarts and been shortlisted for a variety of prizes. She is a member of The Hive Poetry Collective, which produces podcasts about poetry in the Monterey Bay and around the world.