James McKean ’68, ’74
Texas Review Press, 2012
This small book of poetry plays on themes of reminiscence, travel, and the bliss of simple things like being a boy with a Racket Box full of fireworks. This collection of 42 poems won the 2011 X.J. Kennedy Poetry Prize.
In it McKean transports us to some lovely places. Fishing on the Sandy River, climbing up to the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, floating on Puget Sound in a boat of hand-sawn cedar planks, even into his first car, a ’56 Buick. The title poem is about a bus ride in Costa Rica, from Monteverde to San Jose, from the perspective of the driver whose family helps him along the three-hour route:
“… from cloud forests
Through sugar cane and pineapple fields
Into the city and its fireworks,
Its crowded lanes, its blind corners…”
But much of his work is more local. “Good ‘D’” seems to draw from his time playing basketball at WSU in the 1960s. It captures a moment when a visiting player manages to steal from a guard who is “drunk on the home court’s din of expectation” and overlooks the “nobody in his dull uniform.” The author notes this poem is “after Edward Hirsch,” a poet who is known for his ability to explore the often overlooked details.
“Uwajimaya” centers on the Seattle landmark where “ancient shoppers with their wicker baskets” have come for fish, oysters, and crab.
McKean features people, too, among them his mother and father, his wife, a childhood neighbor, and a 12-year-old who calls their home but never speaks. In “My Mother-In-Law Arms Herself,” he explores the experiences of uncertainty and aging of a family member who sleeps with guns beneath her pillow. But those too have been stolen for her safety and by the author.
These poems are varied, like a box of confections, each one a different shape and flavor and best enjoyed one at a time.
After graduating from WSU, McKean completed an MFA and PhD in English at the University of Iowa. An essayist and poet, he has retired from the faculty at Mount Mercy University and now teaches in the MFA program at Queens University of Charlotte in North Carolina as well as at several writers’ workshops.