Duties of an English Foreign Secretary by Macgregor Card
(Fence Books, Albany, N.Y., 2009)
No one’s ever yet travelled through time, but even so, that might be a bit of old news. To read Macgregor Card’s debut, Duties of an English Foreign Secretary, isn’t to merely travel through time, but rather to simultaneously be in multiple times and places and to at the same time be both doing and not doing. Card constantly and effortlessly uses a traveler’s voice writing traveler’s poems and traveler’s frantic songs to flash the reader back and forth between these worlds.
This strange play with time is established in the second poem, “Contempt”, labeled as “a cento of last words”. (16) Constructed of passages taken from other authors, this poem has a foot in the past while Card’s emerging humor keeps the other foot firmly in the present. The lines, “I borrowed a cock / A king should die erect” (17) imply the history of extreme corporal punishment and royal honor and play it against the humor of modern word usage, overshadowing death with puns.
In the same way that the form straddles past and present, the subject matter straddles life and death. Card’s deathbed collage attains life through structure. Dante precedes Mozart who precedes Hamlet. Christians precede Saturn which precedes Madison Square Garden. The last words collected in the cento gain new meaning as they’re stacked together:
Moose … Indian
Empire, body and soul
Empire, body and soul
I’m bored (19)
The words are able to throw off the weight of their dying speaker to become fresh lines of interaction.
Card’s poems play with ideas of past and history, clouding any sense of chronology. In “The Libertines’ Announcement” he calls past images into question and then reduces them to a language-shadow of their former selves:
Today the mayor planted
oranges symbolizing rage
A third day, oranges
standing in for rage
as well as hope
will soon revert to rave
and the tree
is nowhere to be found (67)
Real oranges of the past have changed into symbols of abstractions. Then, they are reduced even further into standing in for those symbols. The oranges will fail at this task and then eventually won’t exist at all.
Card works the same clouding into active language in “Nary a Soul”:
Could if I could
Could if I no could
No, no could if I no could
Breaks down to:
If I could could could
No, could NO could could could
No, if I COULD could could could
If no no no no no NO no no no no no / No no no no (28)
Not only are images broken down, but the mere possibility action is stripped of its identity and reduced to repetition. It’s interesting how easily “could” can turn from a conditional verb to an almost nonsensical sound. Taken out of context, the eye wants to read it as “coold” or “cowled”. “Could” is stripped of its potential power and reduced to sound.
The title poem explicitly shows Card’s willingness to hold images and language in multiple times. The speaker calls back to different periods in British literature by exploring subjects, collecting them together in chronological refusal:
Prospero wailed on Ariel
and Ariel wailed
“What a boom year for material!” (72)
I want to play my dove
in a magic show about John Donne (73)
and I’ve got friends in London, no I’ve
got friends in London
None of my friends reads poesie (73-74)
These timeframes are held together by Card’s modern, sometimes conversational language. Shakespeare’s characters fight while discussing economics, John Donne is reproduced in performance and friends of the speaker are oblivious to it all. Tradition is consolidated and disregarded. By removing historical separation, Duties of an English Foreign Secretary exists both in the past and present, illustrating the tradition that carries the poem through time.
Jonathan Lohr is a man about town in Oxford, Oh, where he can be spotted walking on all the right sidewalks and studying poetry at Miami of Ohio’s chic creative writing program.