In his most recent fantasy novel, Wee Free Men, British writer Terry Pratchett features this brief scene of a witch staring down a man for beating his mule. Soon after, the witch explains to her 9-year-old granddaughter, "Them as can do has to do for them as can't. And someone as to speak up for them as has no voices."
Jack McCarthy is the kind of poet who speaks for those who don't have a voice—these days, that's just about everyone who didn't raise hundreds of thousands for the Republican National Committee. McCarthy, late of Boston, currently of Washington, has been a frequent Orange County visitor, his annual readings drawing crowds even when he makes appearances in multiple venues. The secret of his success is the sheer vivacity and accessibility of his poems, which often start as uproarious shaggy-dog stories and end, not with a dirty pun, but with small, staggering human truths.
These poems—many collected in his new book, Say Goodnight, Grace Notes—speak to the things that make us human with invariable compassion. For instance, in one poem he talks about the infamous Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner, who let a ground ball roll between his legs during the 1986 World Series. "So we joke," he writes. "We say, 'Like Bill Buckner, ho hoo'…. when what is spectacularly obvious/is we're not even close to being good enough/ever to be exposed/to anything this bad/our errors go unnoticed/because we go unnoticed/and we like it that way."
It's a plainspoken insight, written in the vernacular of the everyday, but it's honest. Later, he carries the tolling of loss and failure further, and more personally. "Sleep will come," he writes, "when you're not looking/Morning will come, and breakfast,/and things that should be easy/will be easy once more."
The small details of quiet, desperate lives get glossed over in the heavy traffic of media, the sweat and exhaustion of everyday labor lost in inhuman terms like "rightsizing" and obscenities of massive unemployment being seen as irrelevant to an "improving economy." Daily, it seems less and less like there's any value placed on everyday life. McCarthy looks at that and still finds something beautiful; his affections are not just reserved for the glaringly lovely, but for what gets left behind in the face of such dazzle. "The first robin of spring/is like the clicking of a tumbler/in some marvelously complex lock," he writes. "But there's never anything about/the last robin of fall/that announces it/as last."
What's truly remarkable is McCarthy's ability to convey that beauty with an utter lack of pretension. "I just have hairtrigger tear ducts, and always/at all the wrong things: supermarket openings; Tom Bodett saying, 'We'll leave the light on for ya.'" Elsewhere, he writes of his and his wife's propensity for run-down cars. "Sometimes I get home from work/and Carol's ecstatic./'Jack, I met the most wonderful/towtruck driver today … We had the most incredible conversation!/He's a very unusual person.' … a couple years with me she's on/a first name basis with every/towtruck driver in Middlesex County. Triple-A has us on speed dial."
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In Pratchett's fantasy novels, it's not so much that witches have magical powers. It's that they understand how things—and people—really work. McCarthy, likewise, is really no magician, but rather, a down-to-earth guy with the ability to step back and see himself and those around him for what they really are.
"Every time we love we're saying,/Let it ride," he writes, "and what's on the table/is the rent money./And every time we stride again/out into the crisp desert night/our fists shoved deep into empty pockets/we know ourselves for losers.
"But, Jesus,/what brave losers we are."
Say Goodnight, Grace Notes: New and Collected Poems, EM Press, 100 pages, softcover, $15. Jack Mccarthy reads Mon., 7:45 p.m. with poet G. Murray Thomas at the Liquid Den, 5061 Warner Ave., Huntington Beach, (714) 377-7964. Free, 21+; Wed., 8 p.m., at the Ugly Mug Caffe, 261 N. Glassell, Orange, (714) 997-5610; and with poets Cathie Sandstrom-Smith and Larry Colker at Golden West College, Community Room 102, Lot H on Gothard Street, Huntington Beach, (714) 968-0905, Fri., Aug. 29, 7:30 p.m. $3.